The other day, I was here at church and working at my desk. Before I left for the evening, I went to find our custodian, Doris, to let her know that I would be leaving the building and to lock up. I found her cleaning in the back hallway and she briefly paused in her work, greeted me with a big smile, and asked how I was. She also told me that she saw me earlier, but because I was so immersed, she didn’t want to disturb me. Pressed for time, I sadly missed out on our usual conversation—the ins and outs of our day and the warmth in our interaction, hurried as I was to finish up for the day.
And so it is that many of us are consumed by our work and fail to see a friendly face beckoning, or perhaps we are running hither and yon with the tasks of the day and fail to hug a family member, or we miss out on those daily joys that can cushion the day’s annoyances because we are focused single-mindedly and doggedly on just getting through the day or getting to the next thing. So, when life throws us off, it can seem more irritation than not. How do you handle life’s disruptions?
Our lives are filled with unexpected, unplanned events. We tend to view these negatively as many of these disruptions are fraught with pain: the unexpected diagnosis that threatens to end our plans, if not our days; the sudden accident that brings us to our knees, the unplanned job loss that stuns and humbles us, and the sudden breakup or breakdown of a relationship that we had counted on. Often we meet the very idea of the unexpected by internally bracing ourselves for bad news and mentally calculating how long it will take to return to some kind of normal again. Yet, what if the unexpected contains or leads to something really good? What if it brings greater clarity or purpose or vision? What if the disruption to our plans will help in some way to get our attention or our focus or our love? C.S. Lewis once wrote: “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.”
In today’s scripture, Joseph is divinely interrupted. Unlike Mary’s Magnificat, Joseph’ story isn’t told as frequently as Mary’s. It doesn’t get the same air time in the churches. We might forget that Joseph even has a part to play in the birth story before the couple makes it to the stable. Yet his decision to support and protect Mary is an important part of the story.
Think of the inner turmoil that he must have endured. His betrothed is with child and it isn’t his baby. In a culture of patriarchy, control, and shame, Joseph’s beloved could have been stoned for this infidelity. Instead, he resolves to quietly dismiss her and endure the ridicule of his peers rather than subject her to public disgrace and shame.
How in the world did he get to that point in his internal calculations? And could we do the same in similarly painful circumstances? It probably wasn’t an easy decision for Joseph even to send her away quietly—culture often shapes us more than we know. And yet, he somehow finds compassion in his heart to act mercifully when others might have made her a spectacle. Some greater compassion held his heart and made him thoughtful rather than reactive and angry. Some greater grace helped him to gain perspective on Mary’s situation, and others like it.
And just when Joseph has resolved to do this quiet dismissal, he is visit by one of God’s messengers telling him to do the counter-cultural thing: To take this potentially scorned woman for his wife, in spite of everything he knows or thinks he knows about what may have happened or transpired. To become father to the child growing in her womb and to treat the child as his own. The angel reassures Joseph that what seems so so very wrong will actually work out very differently than what he might expect.
We are just a few days shy of Christmas and a new year and decade beginning, 2020. When we consider the birth of Jesus, we may have our heads stuck in the past instead of looking around us for signs of new birth in our lives, our society, and our world. Some of the changes that we have seen around us have been as disruptive and as fraught as an unexpected pregnancy. We may argue about the paternity or maternity of those changes, and yet they have arrived in our lives and now we must consider them and factor our influence or absence into the equation. We may wish to privately dismiss what we might publicly fear, but we might also entertain that some greater grace may just grant us perspective on our situation and the truth that we seek.
When Joseph was resolved to dismiss Mary, when his mind had been made up, he lay down to sleep. His sleep was interrupted by dreams and an angelic visitor who reassured him to welcome Mary and the child into his life. “Do not fear,” the angel says when Joseph lies with his heart unguarded in sleep. “Do not fear, “we hear, yet it is hard not to fear when your world and all your plans are being turned upside down and sideways, and every day new messengers come bearing news for better or for worse. And yet, Joseph gives us hope that we may be as capable, as nimble, and as open to changing our hearts, minds, and our course of action as he was, even while he surely tossed and turned in fear of the challenge and the road ahead of him.
What new hope are you being asked to parent or incorporate into your life? What new perspective and what angel has come knocking to bring you a message that is for your rising up and not your downfall? What Mary is even now trying to find a safe place to rest for the struggle ahead? With what are you preoccupied this Christmas while angels and messengers vie for your attention?
Christmas is a glimpse of a moment that happens in the midst of chaos, unruly politics, an oppressive regime, limited resources, and domestic messiness. There are decisions that are made, re-considered, and embraced that affect not only one small family but generations to come. We, who are inheritors of the story, can see this particular miracle unfold in our songs, on greeting cards, and in the church, each year, as if on cue. But can we likewise see the decisions that help a similar miracle to be born in our own lives when things are terribly messy, when angels are put off by our business-as-usual, and when our eyes are more focused on our daily grind than the hope of something better and brighter?
May we be like Joseph and give our better angels a hearing.