Saturday, December 17, 2016

Stepping Out of the Box

Step Outside Of The Box - Advent 4A
John Shea, a Catholic priest from my hometown Chicago, tells a story about a teacher who at Christmas-time would get presents from her students. She soon learned to tell what was in a box by the shape of the box, with handkerchiefs most often in the long, narrow flat boxes. Since thank you notes were not expected, and having enough hankies on hand, she began to stack the long boxes in her closet. Whenever she needed some fresh new handkerchiefs she would take out a box and open it. One year after she had retired, she was getting down to the last few boxes. She opened a box. Instead of handkerchiefs she found an antique gold, woman’s dress watch decorated with precious stones. All this time, she thought, I possessed a beautiful and precious antique watch and never knew it!

We have a vintage wine cellar, but we never drink from it, said the great medieval mystic and priest, Meister Eckhart. We have an inner fountain that springs up into eternal life, says Jesus, but we are so out of touch with it we continue to draw from outer wells for water.

All of these images suggest that we humans are very valuable and loved, but we are somehow not in touch with the treasure that lies within us, the riches that are already ours. We tend to identify ourselves with our outer attributes – nice hair, a good job, great talents. And we are afraid or just plain uninspired to think outside of the box as they say. Or, to look deep within. This all raises the obvious spiritual question: why do we not know who we really are and what gifts we really have deep inside ourselves?

Enter Joseph. In the context of Jewish marriage rituals of the first century, he and a young woman named Mary are married, not engaged. Yet, young women married at such an early age they continued to live with their own family for a year or two. Joseph is faced with a dilemma. Mary is obviously pregnant and has not yet lived with Joseph. In biblical language, he has not known her.

We are told that Joseph is a righteous man – meaning he is faithful in following the commandments and traditions of his people. After all, he is a descendant of Israel’s most illustrious king, King David. He has family traditions and heritage to uphold. As Mary is understood to have committed adultery, he must dismiss her, which is bible speak for divorce.

Joseph is compassionate and wishes to do this quietly so as not to attract attention to her “condition.” It is the right thing to do, although it will end disastrously for Mary – her family will reject her, people in town will reject her and she will most likely become homeless and a single mother.

Fortunately for her, and for us, Joseph is a dreamer. If your name is Joseph and you are in the Bible you quite naturally are a dreamer. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph has three dreams. In this first one an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Not so fast, Joseph, son of David, with keeping the traditions. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she bears is conceived of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This is where Joseph suddenly realizes who he is and whose he is. As a son of David he is one of God’s beloved. And he suddenly realizes that he does not need to act out of fear due to tradition. He reaches deep inside of himself. As God’s beloved, he remembers he is to be merciful and compassionate as God is merciful and compassionate. He takes Mary as his wife and does not know her until after she bears a Son – The Son, The Son of God! Mary gives the child a life as God’s own; Joseph gives the child membership in the family of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph gives Jesus his Jewishness.

I wish I could say that right then and there the story ends happily ever after. But Joseph’s next dream warns him that Herod, the appointed King of the Jews, is going to kill all the young children in the area so as to kill the child Jesus. So he is instructed to take the child and Mary to Egypt. The third and final dream of Joseph comes long after Herod has died and it is safe to return home so the child might live up to his name -  Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus who will save us from our sins. As we know, however, this too is dangerous until the day of resurrection.

Note the odd character of Matthew’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. Joseph, not Mary, not Jesus, is the main character – the protagonist. And only because of a dream, only because Joseph steps outside the box of tradition and commandment, are we even here today – a community of God’s beloved – a beloved community of God.

This story is meant to remind us of just who we are and whose we are. And that deep inside we have the gifts of faith, hope and charity that call us to step outside the box and do something that is beyond “the right thing” for others – all others.

So often we identify ourselves with the outside trappings of tradition and societal norms. We forget that the stories of faith over and over again depict our ancestors in the faith stepping beyond the accepted commandments and norms so as to do extraordinary things on behalf of God and on behalf of others.

That is, we often are more aware of our outer life than we are of our inner life. We are more aware of the handkerchief box than the beautiful, precious antique watch inside. Advent and Christmas invite us to step outside the box and do something beautiful and meaningful with our lives so that others might live safe and meaningful lives as well. We are called to draw upon the hidden gifts and attributes deep inside ourselves, not just the more obvious outer gifts and attributes.

Remember Joseph throughout this fourth week of Advent. For without Joseph and his dreams and his courage to step outside the box, we would not be here as members of that same holy family – the Holy Family of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; the Holy Family of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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