December 18, 2016 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause
December 18, 2016
Fr. George Smiga
There are many vivid characters in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. But only two of them act in secret, only two act in a way so that no one else knows what they are doing. The first of these characters is Joseph. In today’s gospel, he decides to divorce Mary in secret, quietly, because he is unwilling to expose her to public shame. The second character who acts secretly is King Herod. We will hear on the Epiphany how Herod calls the Magi to meet with him in secret to ascertain the time of the star’s appearance. I believe that Matthew tells us that Joseph and Herod acted in secret to draw our attention to them and to invite us to compare the way that they act so that we might gain insight for our own lives.
The first thing that we notice when we compare Joseph and Herod is that they are both men in crisis. Joseph is in crisis because he has just learned that Mary, the woman he loves, the woman with whom he planned to share his life and raise his family is pregnant—and not by him. Herod is in crisis because his advisors have just told him that his rule is threatened. A child is born in Bethlehem who will replace Herod as ruler of Israel. Although Joseph and Herod are both in crisis, they respond to that crisis in very different ways. Joseph lets go in love. Herod holds on with power. When Joseph realizes that if he is to be faithful to God’s law, he cannot take Mary as his wife, he lets go. He chooses to divorce her, letting go of all of his dreams for happiness with her in a shared union. But Joseph lets go in love, quietly, because he does not wish to expose Mary to public disgrace. When Herod realizes that his throne is threatened, he holds on with all of his royal power. He calls the Magi to meet with him in secret to disguise his violent plan to kill the Christ child.
As Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth continues, it becomes clear that it is Joseph who is vindicated. Joseph discovers that the woman he let go of in love could be his again and that he is to become the foster father of the Messiah. Herod finds out that his plan to hold on with power is frustrated when the holy family escapes to Egypt and his own power comes to an end through his death.
I believe that Matthew asks us to compare Joseph and Herod because when we find ourselves in crisis, it is often better to let go in love than to hold on with power. This can happen as we face a family member dealing with addiction or living a lifestyle with which we do not agree. It can happen as we attempt to find reconciliation with someone who has hurt us. It can happen with an aging parent whose health is failing and whose judgment is impaired. It can happen as we deal with a serious sickness that threatens our future. In any of these situations, we can find ourselves with no way to move forward, with no clear choice we can make. In those situations, it might be best to let go in love, to hand over the things we cannot control into God’s care.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a time to hold on. There is a place for power. We have every right to establish expectations, to give directions, and to lay down a deadline or two. But when we find that our influence is having less and less effect, it might be time for us to side with Joseph and let go in love. We do believe that when we let go, we provide more space for God to act. And although there are no guarantees, it is certainly possible that our experience in letting go will mirror that of Joseph’s. Joseph found out that the woman he thought he had lost could still be his wife, although in a new way. We may discover that what we let go of in love can, in God’s love, be ours again.