Sunday, December 22, 2013

Mary, Joseph and ‘the Obedience of Faith’

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 22, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2013]

“The obedience of faith.”

That’s an expression that St. Paul uses in today’s second reading, which is taken from the first chapter of his letter to the Romans.  He writes, “Through [Jesus Christ] we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith.”

Now we know that this idea was very important to Paul because 16 chapters later—at the very end of Romans—he uses the exact same expression.  He says, "To him who can strengthen you, according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings and, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.

It’s the thought he begins the letter with, and it’s the thought he wants to leave us with as we finish the epistle.

My question is: Was he thinking of Mary and Joseph when he wrote it?  When he was writing about “the obedience of faith,” were Mary and Joseph on his mind?

They certainly could have been—and I dare say they should have been—because I can’t think of two people who demonstrated faithful obedience to Almighty God more completely than they did.

Remember, neither Mary nor Joseph understood all that we understand concerning the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Neither of them saw the complete picture.  Neither fully understood what God was doing in them and through them.  But whenever Mary and Joseph did come to recognize what God wanted them to do in a particular situation, they obeyed God’s instruction—immediately, and regardless of the cost. 

Joseph, for example, as we heard in today’s gospel, did not initially understand how Mary got pregnant.  But once he did understand, he acted as God wanted him to act—even though it probably tarnished his image in the eyes of other people.

The same was true for Mary.  She was pregnant during the betrothal period, which typically lasted for several months.  During that period of time a couple was actually considered married according to Jewish law—although they did not live together as husband and wife.

Which means, quite simply, that Mary was pregnant at a time when she should not have been! 

Can you imagine what the talk around Nazareth was like concerning this situation?  The gossip must have been flying around all over the place!

“I always thought Mary was such a good girl.  Do her parents, Joachim and Ann, approve of this?  Do they know what’s going on?”  “And how about Joseph?  Why is he still with that woman?  Why didn’t he do the honorable thing and divorce her?”

Obviously, for both Mary and Joseph, the obedience of faith was much more important than the gossip of their neighbors.

And this is what we see throughout the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke: constant obedience rooted in trusting faith.  After Jesus’ birth, for example, Joseph was told by the angel in a dream to take our Lord and his mother down to Egypt and to stay there.  Matthew describes the scene in this way (and here I quote): “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.”

The implication there is that Joseph acted IMMEDIATELY!  He didn’t even wait until morning.  Once God’s will became clear to him, he carried it out without any hesitation whatsoever.

He acted just as quickly and decisively when the angel told him to take Mary and Jesus and to go back to Israel after Herod had died.

We see the same faith-filled obedience in Mary:

Gabriel said, “Mary, Almighty God is asking you to be the instrument through which his Son, Jesus, will be born into the world.”

Mary answered, “Be it done unto me according to your word.”

And, of course, given the fact that our Blessed Mother was without sin, this was her attitude in every situation of her life, not just in the events surrounding her Son’s birth.

“Be it done unto me according to your word.”  In other words, “Whatever you want, God, I want.”

The kind of faithful obedience that we see in Mary and Joseph is something we don’t see enough of in our world today—as Pope Francis has been reminding us in many of his recent talks and writings.  There he’s been making the point that Christians need to act according to what they say they believe!

Our Holy Father is well aware of the fact that, nowadays—unfortunately—faith and obedience are often treated as if they are separate and distinct realities.  So people think they can profess faith without having to obey: “I believe, but I hate that person who hurt me;” “I believe, but I steal from my employer;” “I believe, but I cheat on my wife;” “I believe, but I don’t pay my employees a just wage;” “I believe, but I contracept;” “I believe, but I don’t care about the less fortunate;” “I believe, but I won’t forgive”—and on and on the list goes.

And you’ll notice that those who say these kinds of things will always have a “good excuse” for the disobedience!

Is it any wonder that so many people do not experience great blessings from the Lord?

The obedience of faith is what eventually brings us God’s greatest blessings.

Because of the obedience of faith that was present in the lives of Mary and Joseph, the world was blessed with the birth of its Savior—and through that Savior we have been blessed with the hope of eternal salvation!  We’ve been blessed with forgiveness and mercy and the truth that sets us free—the truth that leads us to eternal life!

And these blessings that come from the obedience of faith can come to us even after we’ve first been disobedient (which is very good news, since all of us are disobedient, at least from time to time).

It reminds me of a young woman I know, who, 18 years ago—back in 1995—got pregnant out of wedlock.  She was (and is) Catholic; she has good Catholic parents, so she knew the right thing to do in that situation.  And she did the right thing—what her faith required her to do: she took the child to term, and gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy named Eric.

Then she made another difficult decision and gave Eric up for adoption, believing that it would be better for him to be raised by two loving parents in a good, stable Catholic home.

She arranged the adoption through Catholic Social Services, with the understanding that, if the adoptive parents and Eric were in agreement, there could eventually be some contact—but it would have to be through the agency.

Thankfully, there was some contact over the past 18 years between them all (letters and such) and it was all good.

But over the last several months, a whole new dimension has been added, by the grace of God. 

(Eric, by the way, graduated from high school this past June, with honors.  From what I know of him, he’s a fine young man with a very bright future.  He’s now a freshman in college with a double major!)

But anyway, several months ago, his birth mom sent him, through the agency, the journal she kept during her pregnancy, in which she wrote about her experience, and about her love and hopes for her child.

Well, it seems that Eric was so moved by what he read that he said, “Forget about the agency, I’m going to contact my mother directly!”

And he did, via Facebook (yes, Facebook does have some good uses!).

Since then there has been personal, face-to-face contact and visits—and many blessings for everyone involved: the birth mom, her parents, the adoptive parents, and, of course, Eric himself.

Let me close my homily now by reading to you the brief note that Eric sent to his birth mother this past Mother’s Day.  This shows how her “obedience of faith” 18 years ago, has been the source of countless blessings from God—and continues to be so.  This was written, obviously, before they had physically met.  Eric wrote:

Though I have never met you, I know that you love me more than anything in the world.  I just wanted to let you know that I love you too.  I am grateful for your decision 18 years ago when you became a mommy.  And you gave me up so that our lives would be fulfilling.  Look at where we are now and what we have done.  Separate paths slowly becoming one.  Happy Mother’s Day, mommy!!!

Somewhere in heaven, my brothers and sisters, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mary and Joseph—and Jesus—are smiling.