At this time of the year, expectation is very nearly overcome by exhaustion. Whether that expectation is Christmas dinner and a pile of ill-afforded presents, or the Coming of the Son of Man, the lead up now seems interminable, like an overlong engagement, and the pressure to do the right thing by the right people seems overwhelming.
The Christmas tree, which somehow wandered into the living room before Thanksgiving, looks a bit shabby now, or if it is artificial, it probably needs dusting. Perhaps the dog tore into one of the packages. There's still last-minute shopping to be done, a turkey to be bought â is Thanksgiving now like Christmas, or Christmas like Thanksgiving? â and we still haven't decided whether to invite old Uncle Harry over and endure his endless war stories.
The gospel today reminds us of another person whose anticipation may have been exhausting. Joseph is informed by God's messenger that his young fiancÃ© is going to have a baby, and he is ordered to keep quiet. He isn't the father, Matthew implies. Perhaps we are a bit more used to such a situation today, and we may commend Joe for sticking with Mary despite her questionable morality. But after all, morality is subjective, isn't it?
A first-century Jew thought otherwise. And quite apart from the moral issue, a matter of the Law, Joseph was faced with the practical matter of just how one hides a pregnancy, a teenage pregnancy probably. And then there was the matter of Joseph's own feelings. It looks as if the pregnancy occurred after he became engaged to Mary. How could she do such a thing? And if the messenger was right, and he wasn't dreaming dreams, the child to be born had Yahweh, the God of Israel, as its father. What on earth would such a child be like, look like, act like?
How do we, like Joseph, do right by Mary and the child she gives to us? For we, too, can react from the ground of the secular world in which we live. We can be equally cynical about what God was doing through Mary. Our feelings, our self absorption may intrude. The demands of faith may be just too much, an optional extra for which we have no time, and an investment of faith and action that has no room in our cluttered, busy lives. Regarding Christmas as a story helps us push it to one side, to be picked up or laid aside as time permits.
Yet the faithful Joseph was a Jew. He believed in a God who acted first and required a human response of obedience and awe. He didn't believe in a God who waited around for human suggestions or obeyed human laws like the law of nature. This God didn't think much of those who thought that God was bound by what humans conceived as unbreakable laws. The God of Abraham did as He thought fit.
While we rush around creating Christmas and getting it all wrong, Joseph walked in faith, expecting God to get it right, to shield Mary from the censure of prying eyes, to heal his bewildered feeling, and to ensure that the child born, while truly God, was winsomely and engagingly human. Humble Joseph calls us to that very same faith and commitment.
The problem for Joseph, and perhaps for us, is that he expected God to act in power and might as God did on Sinai after he brought Israel out of Egypt, as God intervened to rescue Israel. This time there seemed to be a difference. God was intervening in vulnerability and weakness in the form of a baby. Such a version of God isn't much to our liking. We like a bit of force from God, and we like a bit of muscle when we think we are representing God. We just can't get our minds around loving-in-weakness being the solution. Joseph probably wanted to lock Mary in her room, subjecting her to hours of criticism, and then once the baby arrived, divorce her. He didn't. He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God's calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.
It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn't Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God's giving.
Like Joseph, you may expect, but not control. And when God acts by dwelling among us and taking our humanity into himself, then keep Christmas joyfully during the twelve days, give a present a day, stretch out the feast, and give thanks that we are saved in and through the Child.