The following are notes from a homily given December 18. The Gospel reading for the Mass was Matthew 1: 18–25, where, in a dream, an angel counsels Joseph to have no fear.
The focus today is on Joseph and the quandary he faces in realizing that his betrothed is with child even before their marriage has been consummated. Under Jewish law, the male could accomplish a divorce simply by declaring three times, “I divorce you.” And it would have been done. He was undoubtedly a very young man, as Mary was a very young woman—probably both teenagers and frightened enough by what they were facing. But, thanks to the working of God’s grace into this young man’s life, and his having come to his senses, he was able to overcome his fears. His love for Mary must have been a strong deciding factor. Out of that love he had come to share in her own profound trust in the ways of God, and to “let it be done” unto him as the angel had counseled. Together, then, the young couple would face the unknown future, placing their lives completely in God’s hands as they undertook the day-to-day work of pulling together the details of life—finding work, food, shelter, and safety.
This was by no means easy, and we know how the story unfolds. Joseph’s trust was in a future that he could not see, the fulfillment of which he would not live to see. Living in trust, he gradually fades from the story. So, too, with us. The essence of faith, as Hebrews tells us, is belief in things not seen—promises lived into, but which we will never see fully realized. We will also gradually fade from the story. This is the very premise of human love, of the courage to enter into marriage, or the persistent love of a parent for a child, even when it is difficult. Or fidelity to a friend. It is the premise of the most basic forms of faith. We live into the promise, come what may, knowing only that we pass on to future generations the promise that we have been given. Love gives itself away, in trust.
The hardest thing about trust is that we have to cede control over our lives, and finally, all control. Not only do we not know where trust will take us, but we have no ultimate control over the destination, how we will get there, or what will be the effect, if any, of our having loved. The Spirit of God carries us into a future not of our own making, and finally to that point, in death, where there is only God.
But we can be carried with a sense of active participation and peace if, like Joseph, we accept the grace of it, and thus let go of the natural fears involved in trusting in God. For he, with Mary, learned that accepting the ways of God leads not to a sense of uncontrollable fate, a sort of free fall, but to just the opposite: the realization that “God is with us.” And that God had been with them all along: God’s presence, God’s shekinah, God’s dwelling within them, within us—more intimate to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine). This kind of knowledge provides the foundation, the courage, the freedom to trust in the ways of God. For by dint of this “God with us” grace, we know that whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to the Lord, and that in him we have our hope, our safe haven. Thus did Joseph move into the next phase of his life; thus in faith can we.