Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

(Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25)

Six months ago Pope Francis made a subtle change in the Mass.   A Vatican decree, authorized by the pope, mandated the inclusion of “blessed Joseph, (her) spouse” after mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Eucharistic Prayer.  The decree said that Saint Joseph was so kind and humble that he serves as a model for all men.  With all respect to the Vatican, another quality of Joseph may be specified which seems even more significant.  As the gospel reading today makes clear, Joseph was a “righteous man.”

One has to know the context of the situation to appreciate the righteousness of St. Joseph.  He almost certainly paid a dowry to marry the Virgin Mary.  So when he hears of her pregnancy, he has the right to divorce her in public in order to reclaim his offering.  However, before the angel in his dream tells him that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph decides to divorce her in secret.  His righteousness does not permit him to expose Mary to public disgrace from an open hearing.  In this way Joseph not only complies with the letter of the law but also fulfills its spirit.  For the purpose of the law is to make a person as merciful as God.  In the Sermon on the Mount, delivered later in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will command his disciples to be perfect as God.  Here Joseph exemplifies how this is done.

We live in an era when the world seeks justice with the claiming of rights.  Seeing the subhuman condition in which many people live, this effort cannot be trivialized.  But often the claims of some people clash with those of others to such an extent that it is impossible to determine whose is greater.  Do the poor in underdeveloped countries have more right to emigrate than the people in their countries of destination have right to maintain good order within their borders.  Or does a family in the United States have more right to a second car than a family in Tanzania to a motorcycle?  Questions such as these are nearly impossible to adjudicate, and it is often harder to implement the judgments once made.  To go beyond the impasse we have to let go of some of our rights claims.  In other words, we have to sacrifice ourselves for the good of all.  To do so is not a regular function of human nature; it is the product of God’s grace.  It is true.  Justice is the product of grace.