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Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 22, 2013

In the previous reflections for the Season of Advent, we entered into the Ignatian practice of contemplation: carving out time for reflection, asking for light and understanding from the Holy Spirit, engaging in the use of imagination to enter into the scriptures, and thereby knowing Jesus more clearly, loving Jesus more dearly, and following Jesus more nearly. From the Spiritual Exercises, we imagined God who lovingly beholds the world and all who dwell therein, and who enters into human history in all of its complexity. We then entered into the scene of the Annunciation, where Mary responded generously to God’s call and brought forth the savior of the world. As Christmas Day fast approaches, we are invited to contemplate the birth of Christ.

In the year 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi began a practice by which Christians have engaged in a creative imagining of the circumstances of Christ’s birth. For centuries, this season has been marked by a representation variously called the crèche, the manger, or the nativity scene. Nativity scenes reflect the rich array of cultures in which Christians live; some nativity scenes are large and elaborate, and others are beautiful in their simplicity.

small wooden nativity set

The nativity scene depicted above is my favorite, created by members of a contemplative community called the Sisters of Bethlehem. I purchased the set, piece by piece, over several years, when I had the wonderful opportunity to study in Paris. I was struck by the faces of the characters:  the joyous angel; the simple shepherds; and Mary, with her gentle and loving face, lying on her side cradling the baby Jesus. I have a particular fondness for the Joseph figure. When I was purchasing the statue at the sisters’ store near Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the saleswoman remarked that Joseph’s face conveyed awe and a bit of bafflement as though he were saying “Qu’est-ce qui m’est arrivé ? - What has happened to me?” I invite you to contemplate the birth of Christ through the eyes of Joseph.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius advises the retreatant:

The familiar story of the Nativity should allow you the more easily to be present fully to the persons and places of this mystery. Whatever methods help you enter into the whole scene and to be with the persons involved you should embrace. To be able to enter into the deep-down stillness of this night, to be able to see this very human baby with all the wonder that comes from the eyes of faith, to watch how Mary and Joseph handle themselves, their own response to God at this time - these are various aspects or focuses of the mystery to which you may find yourself drawn. You should take note of the hardship that is already so much a part of Jesus's presence in the world. The labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, hunger, thirst, heat, and cold, the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us, and all this that he might die on the cross for you.[1]

Who is Joseph? He is mentioned fifteen times in the gospels, but the evangelists record not a single word spoken by him. In the infancy narratives of Saint Luke, he is very much on the sidelines. In the infancy narratives of Matthew, however, he plays a much more prominent role. In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told not to be afraid, not to shun Mary, and to take Mary as his wife, because she was pregnant through the action of the Holy Spirit.  In the second chapter, Joseph has two dreams: first, he is warned to leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt because of Herod’s plan to destroy Jesus by murdering every boy child; then, while in Egypt, Joseph is told that it is safe to go back to Nazareth because Herod’s reign of terror had come to an end.

painting of angel visiting Joseph

The Bible records a number of occasions when God communicates to people through dreams.  In the Hebrew scriptures, God communicated through dreams to Abraham, Abimelech, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, Solomon, and Daniel; in the New Testament to Zacharias, Pilate’s wife, Ananias, Cornelius, Peter, and Paul. God can communicate with us through dreams, but that is not the important point. God communicates to us in endless other ways. For most of us, God communicates with subtlety through the ordinary experiences of our lives. Take a moment to do the examen prayer I introduced at the outset of Advent: Where is God present in my everyday life? How does God speak to me? And how do I respond to God?

Joseph was a good husband and a father, caregiver, honest, obedient, faithful and wise. He found himself in circumstances that were, in many ways, beyond comprehension. But because of his steadfast faith, he became Jesus’s guardian and loving protector.

painting of Joseph holding the baby Jesus

The context of Joseph’s life was vastly different than ours. Yet, like Joseph, we are called to listen to God, to trust that experience, and to respond with generosity and love, even and especially when we struggle to understand what is happening in our lives. 

Pope Francis officially began his ministry as pope on March 19, 2013, the Feast of Saint Joseph. To enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s birth in these last days of Advent, I invite you to ponder thoughts from the Holy Father’s homily that day:

God entrusts Joseph to be the custos, the protector. How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus. How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation! Let us respect each of God’s creatures and respect the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, those who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts…In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.

[1] David Fleming, SJ  The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius:  A Literal Translation and a Contemporary Reading.


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