Sunday, December 22, 2019

In Early 21st Century America, How Well Would St. Joseph Fit In?”

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 22, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2019]

One of the constant themes in science fiction stories is time travel.  What would it be like to travel backwards or forwards in time?—to live in another era of human history?—in another culture?—in another part of the world? 

Well, for the purposes of this homily I played out that theme with respect to St. Joseph and America in the early 21st century.  If we could reach back in time and pluck Joseph out of his carpenter shop—out of his Palestinian world of the first century, and magically transport him halfway around the globe, 2,000 years into the future, what would happen?  How would he fare among us?  Would he fit in well in the early 21st century?  (Too bad Rod Serling isn’t still around!  This might be a good story line for another Twilight Zone program.) 

Now I suppose it would be pretty easy to make Joseph look like a person of our age.  Since almost anything goes these days in terms of hairstyles, we probably wouldn’t have to change much on that score.  A trim and a style would be sufficient.  However, the clothes would have to go.  If he wanted to serve Mass in his first century garb I suppose that would be okay.  But for work and everyday wear, he’d certainly need some new threads.  And I’m not talking about $2,000 silk suits here—the J.C. Penny or even the Kmart variety would do just fine.  And even though he probably wouldn’t like a lot of jewelry, Joseph more than likely would want a crucifix to wear around his neck.  And I’m sure we could also convince him to wear a simple, inexpensive watch—so that he’d always be on time for Mass and his many other day to day appointments.

Making St. Joseph a man of the early 21st century is pretty easy when you’re dealing with things that are on the outside (like clothing and a hairstyle).  It gets much more difficult, however, when you have to deal with matters of the mind and heart.  Here, I would say, Joseph would have a very hard time making the grade.  He just wouldn’t fit in very well. He’d never be numbered among the politically correct, that’s for sure.  In terms of his attitudes and personal philosophy, he’d be a 21st century anomaly. 

We find evidence for this, certainly, in today’s gospel text from Matthew 1.  There we learn some very important things about Joseph—things that distinguish him from many, many people in our modern world.  We learn, for example, that he was a person who did not take the easy way out of things.  In our society today some people are always looking for the easy way out. 

“Can’t deal with reality? Take the easy way out: have a drink—or two or three—or forty!  Take a drag on this joint.  Take this pill.”

“Have an unwanted or inconvenient pregnancy? Take the easy way out—get an abortion.”

“Don’t want to discipline your libido?  Take the easy way out: get some birth control.” 

“Don’t want to work for a living?  Take the easy way out: steal from the government, or from anybody else who comes along the way.”

“Have a terminal illness, or too many problems?  Take the easy way out—call your local ‘Dr. Kevorkian’.  Or if you want just do the job yourself, and try to take a few innocent people along with you, like Joseph Giachello did this past Thursday here in Westerly.” 

Now if St. Joseph had been like this—if he had been someone who always took the easy way out—then, I hope you realize, my brothers and sisters, that there would have been no first Christmas day!  I say that because, in all likelihood, Mary would have been stoned to death, and Jesus would have perished in her womb. 

It says there that Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” to one another.  This means that, according to Jewish law, they were already considered husband and wife, even though they weren’t living together as husband and wife.  And this was not unusual.  According to Jewish law, the period of betrothal lasted for one year prior to what we would consider to be the actual marriage ceremony.  Then, after that, the husband would take his wife into his home, and the marriage would be consummated.  So, even though during the betrothal period couples would not be married by our standards, they were husband and wife according to Jewish standards.  Which means two things: number one, a divorce was needed to break the betrothal bond; and number two, any infidelity during the betrothal year was considered to be adultery. 

So here we have Mary coming to Joseph one day, and telling this good, holy, pure man that she’s conceived a child by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Can you imagine Joseph’s initial reaction? . . .

“Mary, I’ve never known you to do anything wrong, but, Mary, do you realize what you’re asking me to believe?  I don’t know.  That’s a tough one.  And besides, what will happen to me if this becomes known?  Do you realize what a terrible position this puts me in?  What will happen to me if people find out that I knew about this situation and did nothing about it?  What will that do to my reputation?” 

Now if Joseph had been a person who always took the easy way out, he would have said to himself, “Hey, I don’t need this aggravation.   This is Mary’s problem, not mine.  I don’t want this responsibility.  I don’t want to take the chance of having my reputation ruined.”

In that case, he would have exposed her to the law, and in all likelihood Mary would have been convicted of adultery and stoned to death.  But Scripture says that Joseph was unwilling to do that.  Yes, it would cost him more personally, but to protect Mary and the child he would take the more difficult route and divorce her “quietly”.  Then, of course, he received a revelation from God in a dream, which confirmed Mary’s story.  And then we see that St. Joseph was willing to take upon himself the most difficult job of all: caring each and every day for the divine Son of God and his mother. 

This brings us to some other points about St. Joseph which set him in sharp contrast to many Americans of the early 21st century.  These others I will mention rather quickly: 

As we’ve already seen, Joseph’s primary concern was not, “What’s in it for me?”  His first concern was to obey God’s will, even if it was difficult, even if there was little or no personal glory in it for him. 

Secondly, Joseph wasn’t ruled by his emotions, as so many people are today.  He didn’t act hastily.  He wasn’t quick to lose his cool.  When he was confused about Mary’s situation, what did he do?  In essence the Bible tells us that he “slept on it’.  He didn’t immediately fly off the handle and lose control. 

Thirdly, I think it’s important to mention that St. Joseph wasn’t ruled by his libido either.  That puts him very much at odds with our 21st century world.  Lest we forget, Joseph lived a celibate life within marriage (Mary according to Catholic Church teaching was always a virgin). 

Fourthly, St. Joseph understood that there’s a very big distinction between what’s legal and what’s moral.  That’s definitely a distinction that many in our nation at the present time either don’t understand or simply choose to ignore.  For example, some try to justify abortion by saying, “It’s legal, so it must be okay.”  Others in business will cheat their customers, cutting corners on the quality of their products, and then try to justify their action by saying that the law allows them to cut the corners.  The law allows it, they say, so it must be okay.

How different Joseph was!  He knew it was well within his legal rights to allow Mary to be put on trial for becoming pregnant during their betrothal.  But that was not the issue for this great saint.  The issue for him was, “Is it right?  Is this what God wants?  Is this the moral course of action?”  (Things would have been a lot different this past Thursday here in Westerly if Mr. Giachello had asked himself those questions and answered them properly.)

Dear St. Joseph, we ask you on this 4th Sunday of Advent to pray for us.  The fact that you wouldn’t fit in very well in 21st century America is not your problem, it’s ours.  It says something about us, as individuals and as a society.  It says that we, by the power of God’s grace, need a change of heart, so that we will become more like you.  Pray that this change will occur in us, St. Joseph, and in all Americans, so that someday, in the future, we will be able to say that you would fit in perfectly in our society.