the measure of a man

Dreams, either good or bad, are ethereal, discarnate spirits so insubstantial as to deny memory of their purpose. Seldom do we retain what it was which we have dreamed beyond the vaguest sense of satisfaction or disquietude. Thus such vaporous memory gives us pause to question any mention of it or of its probative value, that is, what truth might our dreams impart.

Joseph’s Dream

Few, I must presume, would place much credence in their dreams. Fewer yet would admit to taking decisive, life-altering action to such a thing so exquisitely fragile. What man or woman would dare trust the extant images born of their somnolent mind to such a degree as to place one’s self and others at serious risk?

Current Western social norms and cultural attitudes often hinder and even controvert any understanding of first-century Palestinian society and culture. What lies at the core of this great divide is the centrality of the covenantal relationship between the Chosen people of Israel and God. Modern Western secular societies have no similar proclivities; quite the opposite, for God resides, not at the center, but far outside the periphery of the secular mind, if at all.

To the Hebrews of the first century their society, culture, and their lives were ordered by the Law, the Torah, the Word of God. Their daily lives were inextricably ruled by the laws received from God and set down by Moses. The modern Western mind finds great difficulty comprehending such devotion and adherence to divinely ordered rule.

Those accustomed to living in comfort and relative affluence, largely free from want or oppression cannot hope to ever fully realize the harsh, cruel, uncompromising environment that existed two-thousand years ago.

Those who find it perfectly acceptable to casually hook up, using the current vernacular, would be surprised to discover that a mere sixty or seventy years ago such moral casuistry would have been cause for public scorn and personal shame. Pregnancy outside of wedlock was so socially and culturally unacceptable that women who found themselves pregnant were sent away, hidden from public view until the birth of and subsequent adoption of the child. While abortion was available it was illegal and considered murder. For Catholics and most Christians it was an grave mortal sin and such sin was taken with all due seriousness.

Two-thousand years ago, Jewish law demanded much harsher punishment for sins of the flesh. Pregnancy outside of marriage was considered adultery, a sin punishable through death by stoning. Should stoning not be adjudicated the life of a unmarried pregnant woman would be hardly much better than death. No man would wish to marry such a sinful woman who had an illegitimate child to support. Further, the woman’s family would almost always shun and disenfranchise her. Life was overwhelmingly desperate and bleak.

Understanding this, one must wonder just how apprehensive and utterly frightened a poor, very young teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years of age, might have been when confronted by a total stranger who tells her very bluntly that she will become pregnant—with God no less? Considering the time and place where young Maryam lived, the news could not have been welcome news.

One can but wonder why anyone, certainly a young unmarried woman, given the society and culture in which she then lived, would acquiesce to such an honor. What did she tell her parents and how did they react? As a father of two daughters I don’t believe I would have handled the unexpected news very well. I would definitely have questioned her sanity!

The mother of God, right! The bible doesn’t speak of this, no conversation was ever recorded. Although her relative Elizabeth appears to react favorably, Joseph certainly had a few issues with it. As we now know, adultery was a very serious matter, one that called for deadly punishment.

Mary grew up in a very small place; everyone knew everyone else, there simply weren’t enough people for there to be strangers. I grew up in a small town and I remember whenever a wedding occurred, the calendars were marked to determine how long afterwards the newlyweds had their first child. It should come as no surprise that such pregnant news would spread quickly.

And yet despite all her fears, Mary, that young teenage girl, willingly and gracefully said “yes” to God’s request. She could have said no, but instead her response, her fiat was simply, “May it be done to me according to your word.” She freely set aside her own desires, opened her heart to the Holy Spirit, and accepted God’s will as her own. She did not hesitate or question; she simply said “yes”.

But what of Joseph?

There is much here to consider. Betrothal in first century Israel held few similarities with modern notions of engagement before marriage. Betrothal was the initial phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses were set apart for each other.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families and not individuals. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. The world of Joseph and Mary was rigidly divided by gender, much as we see in the mid-eastern cultures today. There was very little contact between men and women on a daily basis. Both men and women understood their union was arranged for political or economic reasons of their respective families.

The entire process was highly ritualized. The women of both families negotiated the contract but the patriarchs of each family publicly ratified it. Only when the groom took the bride into his home was the process complete. Until then the couple was considered betrothed but not married. Although a betrothed couple did not live together, a formal divorce was required. Intimacy with a betrothed woman was considered adultery.

Joseph was a righteous man who, knowing he had violated no law or brought any shame to Mary, wanting to avoid further problems for her, was willing to divorce her quietly. But God had different ideas and so he sent a messenger to Joseph in a dream. Undoubtedly most men would think it more of a nightmare than a dream which of itself offers much to the good measure of Joseph.

As unimaginably difficult it must have been for Mary to have said “yes” to God, was Joseph’s “yes” any less so? Imagine knowing that the woman to whom you are betrothed is bearing a child, a boy to be named Jesus, who is not your own “flesh and blood” but supposedly God’s. As difficult as that must have been, imagine how hard it would be to not only accept it but to take joy in it, to not feel in some way robbed. Whatever Joseph may have felt, as an earthly father he must have died a thousand deaths caring for Mary and her child, both of whom he had accepted in faith as belonging to one other than himself.

A question we should ask ourselves is “How can I know what God wants of me?” Perhaps the question we should ask is of what are we afraid? Not monsters under the bed fear but fear which comes from doubts and uncertainty. How often do we doubt ourselves or others because of what we don’t know? How many dreams are stillborn because of the uncertainty of what lies ahead? How often do we hear Jesus say “Do not be afraid for I am always with you” and yet we cannot or do not listen.

What is it which causes us to hold onto our fears so tight? Why are we so reluctant to confront our fears? Is it because to do so means we must let go and lose control? News flash! We are not in control, God is. Trust in the Lord. Accept all that he asks and you will discover all that God has in store.

Accepting the will of the Unknowable means letting go, placing our lives in His capable and loving hands and saying “yes”. Let us answer God’s call as Mary did, “.”

Amen.

Homily #101
Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)
Isaiah 7:10-14
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Deacon Chuck

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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