Homily for December 19, 2010: 4th Sunday of Advent

“The Anxiety of Joseph” by James Tissot

In the late 19th century, one of the most sought-after realist portrait painters was a Frenchman by the name of James Tissot.  He made his reputation painting society women and the wealthy in and around Paris.  But at one point in his life, while doing research for a painting, he stepped inside a church.  While there, he had a profound religious experience.  He left a changed man, and devoted the rest of his life to spiritual and religious themes – including hundreds of paintings depicting scenes from the bible, most famously, the life of Christ.  The Brooklyn Museum has many of these sketches and watercolors, and they had an exhibit last year.  They are beautiful, and moving.

They are also deeply human  — none more so than a work that has direct bearing on this Sundays gospel. It is a surprising portrait of St. Joseph.

Joseph is shown at his carpenter’s table, with tools scattered around him.  His shop is small, cramped, planks and pieces of wood everywhere, shavings piled up on the floor.  The windows look out onto the bustling streets of Nazareth, where townspeople are going about their business.  But in the middle of all that stands Joseph, bent over his table, his bearded chin in his hand, deep in thought.

The painting’s title says it all: “The Anxiety of Joseph.”

We rarely think of him that way.  But Tissot, as he often does, penetrated to the heart of his subject.

Maybe Tissot was showing Joseph the morning before he has the dream we just heard in Matthew’s gospel.  Or maybe it is the morning after – and he is coming to terms with what the angel has said, and what he must do.

But what we see in Tissot’s picture – and what is hinted at in this gospel today – is a man more like us than we realize.

We tend to think of Joseph the way we see him in the manger scene outside our church, or on the cards we send, or the pageants that are staged.   He is strong, stoic, patient – “righteous,” as Matthew describes him.

But Tissot understood that the man betrothed to Mary was a man of worries, and apprehension, and even fear.  This morning, I’d like to suggest that Joseph is also a man who speaks to our own time.

He is a man for our age – an Age of Anxiety.

He must have known economic uncertainty – wondering how he would support and sustain his family, running his own small business.  He had to pay taxes – to “render unto Caeser.”  Like many people today, shortly after his son was born, Joseph and his family became refugees, immigrants in a foreign land – the land that had held his people as slaves.  Joseph also lived with the threat of terror – a ruthless king bent on murdering children.

On a more personal level, Joseph knew the anxiety of any man about to become a father. He must have asked himself: am I ready for this?  Am I good enough, strong enough, wise enough? And then, confronting the very real possibility of scandal, Joseph must have had more than a few sleepless nights.  How, he must have wondered, could he protect and spare the woman he loved?

And — like Mary, the woman he loved — he also must have thought at some point: this is not what I had planned.   Everything is suddenly different.

How many of us have said that about our own lives?  How many of us have had to face, like Joseph, a confusing world with uncertainty, and doubt, and anxiety and fear?

How many of us have felt like the man in that Tissot drawing, frozen in place, while the world moves on around us, and we stand there and worry and wonder:  what do I do?   How will I get through this?

But into all that, in Joseph’s complicated life, comes a voice in a dream.

“Do not be afraid.  God is with us.”

And his world – and ours – is changed.

In the middle of “the anxiety of Joseph” comes blessed reassurance – and a reminder that God’s will sees beyond our fears, beyond our limitations.

When our lives can seem a nightmare, we cannot forget to dream.

When every demon seems to be making our lives hell, we cannot forget to listen for angels.

When our world has been turned upside down, we cannot forget to trust that God will make it right.

Again and again, the words come to us from the gospels, in times of confusion and doubt and anxiety.

“Do not be afraid.”

That is the message to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds, to the apostles – and to us.

And in these last days of Advent, that is the great message the gospels leave us with as we light the last candle and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  The light is brighter.  God’s presence is closer.

If you have any doubts about that, just think of Joseph, the great silent partner of the Holy Family, the man who doesn’t utter a word in the gospels – but whose ability to trust, and to dream, and to listen speaks volumes.

In the end, the words of the angel echo down to us as the great defining message of Advent hope — banishing all fear, easing all anxiety.

“Do not be afraid.  God is with us.”

Comments

  1. Thank you Deacon Greg! I really needed to hear this message, more than you’ll know. I reposted the homily at my blog with the following intro which includes hyperlinks to your name and the name of your blog:

    “It is a pleasure to share with you this homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, by Deacon Greg Kandra of the Brooklyn Diocese. Deacon Kandra has a superb blog, The Deacon’s Bench, over at Patheos. Do visit him there often, and thank you Deacon Kandra for this penetrating homily.”

    Then for good measure, I posted a link on FB.

    Simply beautiful!

    God Bless,

    Gerry

    [Thank you, Gerry! Believe it or not, I really needed to hear it myself -- sometimes, I find the message I try to impart to others in my homilies is one God needs ME to hear! Dcn. G.]

  2. I just want to let you know that I always seem to be drawn to your homilies on Sundays because you provide much more spiritual guidance than most of the priests at my church.

    Today’s homily especially hit home for me as I’m going through a huge change in my life. And your words have given me courage and hope.

    Please keep up this wonderful work.

  3. Oh, between this and our pastor’s sermon today, my heart is so much more peaceful than it was at 3 am today. We are facing hard decisions, and I will keep repeating “Do not be afraid” to myself as we proceed.

  4. Wow. Those are almost exactly my thoughts on Joseph. I don’t know how many times I’ve felt that only Joseph (or Thomas More) really understand what I’m was facing here or there, and have asked them for help.

    Again, wow.

  5. Sicut Pater, taciter
    stat Faber surpa nos.
    Et dicit nobis suaviter
    Defendo quoque vos.

  6. Doh! (to quote another famous dad). It’s supra, not surpa.

  7. Another reason for St. Joseph to worry…he was the ONLY sinner in the family.

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  1. RT @TopsyRT: Homily for December 19, 2010: 4th Sunday of Advent http://bit.ly/ih85bp

  2. RT @TopsyRT: Homily for December 19, 2010: 4th Sunday of Advent http://bit.ly/ih85bp

  3. [...] As the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus, St. Joseph is the patron saint of families and heads of families, workers, and for a peaceful death. We know very little about his life according to the Gospel texts but the small bits of information we do have indicate a life where he had to make some pretty tough decisions. It has been argued that he lived in an age of anxiety, much like we do today. [...]

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