Today’s gospel reveals a shift. It focuses not on the end times but on the lead up to Jesus’ birth and Joseph’s reaction to the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy. Whenever something new is to happen in the scriptures, we hear the words, “Do not be afraid.” We are called to be open to God in changing times, as was Joseph, Mary. ‘Do not be afraid’ when Jesus is about to be born, when the resurrection is revealed, when the Holy Spirit is celebrated. Fear has become increasingly a guest on our national table and disguised as ‘national security’.
In fact, it is not to be the motivating action in any transition moments. Fear motivates the decisions of our national leaders, our neighbours, and friends and holds us back from a more humane and compassionate future. Overcoming fear with love helps us to recognise the burdens we carry ourselves along with the burdens each one of us, near or far, also carry.
The pregnant Mary faces social exclusion. It accompanies many women in her situation. Social exclusion forms part of the geography of deprivation, poor education, lack of skills, poor housing and violence. But, God enters aching flesh, but we often try to reverse the process and flesh into mere words. The young woman is with child. What could be more of flesh? There is the yearning and aches of desire, tender love or impulsive urge, pain and fatigue, soaring joys and wearying confusions, wondrous power, anguishing powerlessness, surging hope - of changes that envelope and can take over a mother to be. We need to hold on to God who comes and enters our lives in blood and pain to make them holy and human. This is God with us –Emmanuel who enters all the confusions, mess, sinfulness and joy of our lives.
Violence, domestic and abroad; climate change; job insecurity; our children’s futures; street violence and drugs; bullying in school and workplaces; and, economic insecurity and corruption can cause fear to arise. The powerful capitalist- patriarchal system with its strangle-hold on millions of people makes war on innocents; peddles war to our young; creates child soldiers; puts children into slavery and the sex trade; victimises a pregnant young girl and finds new ways to shame her. It judges people with mental illness or other disabilities as ‘unprofitable’; sees same-sex marriage as a threat to marriage and to society; and persecutes the vulnerable who seek our protection – whether they be youth, women, refugees and asylum seekers.
We are being offered to reconsider our options, to think again, to return to our dreams, and listen for the voices that say: Do not be afraid to forgo your privileges. The inability to forgo those privileges affects women, people of colour, and people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds because what is being conceived in all of us is a name meaning ‘God Is With Us’ - not just some of us….. and more so, those we would exclude. Though not the first pope to emphasise the Church’s preference for the poor, Pope Francis embodies it vividly and invites us to do the same. This means going out, sharing, asking, looking into one another’s eyes and getting to know one another. He has what one writer says broken open the Church’s imagination to see love for the poor as a way of life, rather than a guilty obligation, a romanticised ideal, or intellectual exercise. Francis has also challenged us to break beyond the limits of “serving” the poor or be in solidarity with them He says we must draw near to them and remember them as friends. Healing the wounds of the world will not come about by creating some amazing non-profit, promoting a grand, sweeping movement, or crafting amazing talking points, but through a series of personal undertakings by each one of us. This requires love not fear, dispossession from patriarchal values or humble presence. Remembering them as friends means not looking for big, glossy moments of change, but for opportunities to join in the rawness of everyday life. Ask not how you can be of service, but how you can enter into friendship.
God is always coming to us in surprising places and surprising [less expected] people to offer new life. It is not just about ministry and service to others but allow them to minister to us and reveal God’s face to us.
The shock and the scandal of the good news is ‘the furious love of God’ (Chesterton) who is the only God who loves sinners…..unlike the corporate gods amongst us who despise so-called sinners, the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the slack ones, the ones who continue to fail. And God is with us as never before in our flesh born of a woman: in the healing with a touch, forgiving with a word, instilling courage into hopeless hearts; betrayed by a kiss, put to death, but also raised - with us. Those among us who have had losses this year will feel poignantly the gaps and holes left by the passing of a parent, child, sibling or dear friend. The One Who is Coming comes every day to touch those places of pain and suffering with compassion and love and enable us to recognise the face of Jesus in the many ‘others’ that cross our paths.
Though Joseph does not get much attention in the Church Matthew begins with him at centre stage. Matthew does not have angelic annunciations, the embrace of Mary and Elizabeth, shepherds and innkeepers. Joseph receives God’s revelation in his dreams. He names this child ‘Jesus’ (the liberator) and ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us and will be with us). The name ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us) is more than a nice name for a sweet baby. It tells us that the chill of our world has been pierced by a love that will not let go of us. The title is not just a name. It frames or brackets Matthew’s Gospel: it begins with a baby who is ‘God with us,’ and ends with that child promising to be with us till the end of time.
God is not a distant cheerleader but present and will always be with us and travels with us. In Jesus, we encounter God's tender mercies and healing love. But we know that in Jesus we hear about God's expectations, too, even though we know they are beyond our capacity. When we are afraid or feel we can never measure up to the demands of the gospel, we might ponder with Joseph the meaning of the name of Jesus, ‘he will save,’ and ‘is saving’ and it is God who is acting here, not us, and helps us when we fall short.
Joseph participates in liberation. The Angel Gabriel, who whispered the Qur'an into Muhammad’s ear, and who continues to speak to us of God, comes to dispel our fears. ‘Do not be afraid.’ Joseph responds to God’s word through the angel and is enabled to act with compassion, to forego his rights and privileges, especially his patriarchal prerogatives and take Mary to be his, and ours. The good news is that God responds to faithfulness by generating new life. Joseph is a sign of the many who practise faithfulness without fuss or fanfare. It is repeated in peoples’ lives over and over again in our parishes, local communities, cities and rural places. They do not look for big, glossy moments of change, but seek opportunities to enter into the messiness and rawness of peoples’ lives.
Our challenge is to recognise God’s presence in all situations and circumstances. A particular awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a visible reflection of God’s care. Whatever we may choose to do, and be for others, is the key to experiencing Emmanuel again this Advent, is to offer ourselves to be ‘little Emmanuels’ in practical ways in our own world.
Fr Claude Mostowik msc
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)