Sunday, December 26, 2010

10-12-19: 4th Sunday of Advent (A)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14 / Psalm 24 / Romans 1:1-7 / Matthew 1:18-24
Freud theorized that dreams are the fruit of our unconscious as we work through some conflict experienced with others, ourselves or, as the non-Freudians among us might suggest, even God. How many an inventor has claimed to have stumbled upon the insight that gave birth to his invention after waking from a dream. How many have found the solution to a problem only after a good night’s sleep. In today’s gospel Joseph’s dream led him to embrace a destiny that at first must have seemed fruitless, a dead end, an emasculating humiliation – protecting a would-be wife who’s carrying someone else’s baby. Yet, remarkably, he foregoes the divorce and marries. The honeymoon must not have been very pleasant.

[According to the then Jewish custom, once a couple was engaged, a divorce was required to break the betrothal though the couple would not yet have been living together].

In popular Catholic piety Joseph is often presented as a mild-mannered, milquetoast wimp, devoted to Mary as if she were already an apparition. So docile is Joseph’s stance toward Mary in this kind of hagiography, you could almost picture him bobbing his head up and down like a hungry chicken each time she called Jesus by name. And while some would argue that the gospel account of Jesus’ origins amounts to the same pious whitewashing of some hard realities (an apt definition of hagiography), there is evidence of refreshing honesty as well – as the admission in today’s gospel of Joseph’s initial desire to wash his hands of the whole mess.

Before his revelatory dream Joseph sees only two possible solutions to the problem: to divorce quietly or to divorce publicly. This initial dilemma might not portray Joseph as especially virtuous but it does make him a thoroughly believable historical figure, as he offers a typically male response which echoes through the ages in every man’s heart: what’s the easiest way out?

Men, these days, are often chided for their lack of responsibility, their penchant to embrace a dead-beat status as dads, or anything else. Suggested solutions range from military induction (“the Marines’ll make a man of him”) to more formal religious-type vows (the Promise Keepers’ movement). But perhaps Joseph’s story offers the best insight: men need to dream. Discipline, asceticism, self-denial, guilt - all may curb the male impulse for a while, but only inspiration respects that impulse as God-given and will ultimately be able to transform its raw power into a powerful creativity.

While, from theology’s point of view, it’s Mary’s consent, or “fiat,” on which hung the salvation of the world, the practical reality is that Joseph’s dream made all the difference. His choice to marry Mary and give the child the protection of legitimacy cannot be underestimated when we consider the possible outcomes if he hadn’t.

Remember: Joseph became the father he was intended to be, not because he was virtuous or pious or even responsible, but because he listened to his dream and had the…well, you know…to follow that dream. Turns out, Joseph was a real mensch.

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