December 24, 2011 - Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, at the Vigil Mass

Today's Readings

Today we celebrate the birth of Savior, Jesus Christ, who was born in a stable and laid in a manger. I think that most people today, since we do not get to see mangers very often, think that a manger is a place where the baby Jesus was laid. A manger is a feeding trough. A place that cows and sheep eat hay out of. It was the best that Mary and Joseph had, so it was what they used.

Consider the imagery of Jesus, the bread of life, born in the town of Bethlehem, which means house of bread, and laid in a feeding trough, a place for food. This baby, Jesus, is the bread that we eat at Mass, which is not bread. Although it looks like bread, it is Jesus.

Consider the poverty that Jesus was born into. A woman gave birth in a stable. That woman is the Queen of Heaven and Earth. The child she gave birth to was laid on the cleanest hay Joseph could find, which probably was not all that clean. That child is the King of All Creation. God could have provided the best bed in the world and the most luxurious room, but Jesus did not descend from heaven to earth to spend time with the rich and powerful. He was always poor.

Consider the love of God for the world. He so loved the world that he sent his only Son as our Savior. All we have to do is love him in return. He does not force us to love him by being strong, but by being weak. The weakness of God: the weakness in the manger and the weakness on the cross. The weakness of God is stronger than the strength of humans. How can we help but love a little baby? How can we help but love a man who suffered and died for us? How could our hearts be so hardened?

So why then, was Joseph going to abandon Mary and Jesus? There are some who speculate that Joseph was going to divorce Mary quietly because he suspected that he had been betrayed. This is unsupported by the text. It says that Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit. No doubts are suggested. Moreover, when the angel appears, he does not say, “Joseph, son of David, do not doubt.” He says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” Guided by the words of the angel, we can be confident that the reason Joseph was going to divorce Mary was that he was afraid.

What did Joseph have to be afraid of? We are told that his fear arose because he was “a righteous man.” He had the fear of God in him. In the Old Testament, the priests Nadab and Abihu are killed by fire because they offer the wrong kind of incense; God struck down Uzzah because he touched the Ark of the Covenant in order to prevent it from falling off the cart that it was on. Then there was the unnamed prophet killed by a lion because another prophet told him that God said to eat some food, but he was lying. Serving God can be dangerous.

Joseph was not suspicious. He was afraid. Probably, the job of protecting the Blessed Virgin Mary which he had accepted, already seemed more than he was capable of. Now, hearing that she was carrying a child within her who was the Son of God, the Savior of Israel and of the Whole World, pushed him over the top. Mary was now the new Ark of the Covenant. The child would be God himself. What if Joseph made a mistake? What if he said the wrong thing, or did the wrong thing?

What father has not looked at his newborn child and not had these fears? These are normal fears for any parent, but how magnified they were when the child was God. Mary had been judged worthy. She was sinless. But Joseph was a sinner, like the rest of humanity, even though he was a good person. He knew that he was not worthy to care for Jesus. His did not suspect Mary, he suspected himself, that he was incapable of what he had gotten into. So it was that Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to shame Mary, resolved to divorce her quietly.

And then the angel came in a dream. Better in a dream for such a man, in such a situation, than while awake. He might have had a heart attack right then and there. The angel tells him not to be afraid, “For it is through the Holy Spirit.” Not only the conception was through the Holy Spirit, but everything. Joseph is told the first thing he has to do: name the child Jesus, so at least he knows the first thing.

The angel tells Joseph something else, which is very important: this child will save his people from their sins. In this sentence, the angel affirms that Jesus is God. He will save his people. Who has a people except God? The Israelites are the Lord’s people, and so is the rest of the world. And then the angel says that he will save his people from their sins. By this, the angel tells Joseph that times are different now.

Surely Joseph made a few missteps. He was a sinner, like you and I, but he did not have to be afraid. God knew that Joseph was a sinner, but he still chose Joseph to care for his only Son. We know of only one other time that God spoke to Joseph in a dream, when it was time to flee to Egypt. Perhaps God had other messages for Joseph that are not recorded, or perhaps those were the only two that Joseph needed. But Joseph did the best he could, and it was good enough. Once he knew that God actually wanted him to do this, he could only obey.

How are we going to respond then? We know that Jesus is forgiving. We know that Jesus only wants us to be saved. We know that even some of those who helped kill Jesus are now with him forever in heaven. We do not have to be afraid of God striking us with lightning if we make a mistake. The time has passed when God was revealing his holiness to the world in that way. Now God is revealing to us his love. Will we take advantage of his forbearance and offend him freely? No. We will look at that child, the newborn child (not even like the one we see in manger scenes who is more like a tiny adult) but a newborn child, so fragile and weak, and we will love him and we will know without the least doubt that he loves us.