The infancy narratives in Saint Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph rather than Mary. That’s because Matthew’s gospel was initially directed to Christians of Jewish descent. Saint Matthew wants to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets in Sacred Scripture as coming through the line of King David. Joseph is shown to be a direct descendent of David. Joseph names the child, he gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. The child is Son of God, and Son of Mary, but also, through Joseph’s action of naming the child, he is also Son of David, and of course, Joseph’s legal son and heir in the eyes of the Law.
Joseph is told by the angel, Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. These words do not be afraid occur repeatedly in scripture whenever a human being has an experience of the Divine. For example, the angel Gabriel appeared to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah and told him not to be afraid. He did the same when he appeared to Mary at the Annunciation. This same angel also appeared to the prophet Daniel and told him not to be afraid. The shepherds tending their flocks in Bethlehem were told not to be afraid. So also, were Simon Peter and the disciples when they almost broke their fishing nets after following Our Lord’s instructions. Peter, James and John were told not to be afraid when they heard God’s voice during Our Lord’s Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other women who approached the empty tomb on Easter Sunday were told not to be afraid. And in today’s gospel, Joseph is told Do not be afraid.
But why should Joseph be afraid? What is this fear referring to? Well, there is good fear and there is bad fear. Those of you who are parents, if you are afraid to leave your children with strangers, then this is good fear leading you to choose a proper action for the sake of your children and their safety. If we are afraid that occasions of sin will lead to us losing our souls, losing the love of God in our lives, then this is good fear. There is also bad fear. Bad fear is anxiety, the fear of the unknown. Bad fear is hopelessness and despair. Judas Iscariot hung himself after he betrayed the Lord because he feared that God would never forgive him. This was bad fear. When scripture says Fear the Lord it is referring to the good fear that leads us to act and behave in a way that shows our respect and our reverence for God.
But Joseph is told in a dream not to be afraid. Since this was a dream, the fear here could not have been in the awesome vision of the spiritual, like the vision of angels the shepherds had. Since Joseph was asleep, his fear must have been generated by some anxiety, most probably Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Perhaps, on the human level, there was the fear of what others would think when a child was born only five or six months after the couple began their marriage. What a scandal that would cause. Maybe Joseph was worried over what this Mary was really like, how well did he know her? After all, she was pregnant seemingly with someone else’s child. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring him? Or perhaps Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he was caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and co-operating with the sin? And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could never love this child as every child has a right to be loved. After all, it wasn’t his child. How could he love the child as a father? We hear about Joseph’s concerns over and over again, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought: What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I go through with this marriage and take Mary as my wife. It’s no surprise Joseph had a troubled sleep.
But the angel said to Joseph in the dream: Do not be afraid. Trust God, for the child is special and so is his mother. There is no other man. There is only the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid. Trust God. And Joseph put his complete trust in the angel and in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father. And Joseph named the child Jesus. And from this point on this wasn’t just Mary’s child and the child conceived through the Holy Spirit. This was now Joseph’s child, his legal son and heir; and also, a son of David.
Fear is not the critical characteristic of the Christian. At the heart of our faith is love – but it’s not the warm, cuddly, teddy-bear kind of love – it is to be more precise, sacrificial love. Our whole lives must consist in the continuing effort to love more and more as Jesus loved, sacrificially. And to do this we need a gift from God. And that gift is trust. Trust is God’s Christmas gift to us. His Son, the Eternal Word, entrusted himself to us. He trusted himself to a young woman’s body for nine months. He trusted himself to a mother and foster-father who never quite understood what he was about. He trusted himself to twelve intimate friends, one of whom betrayed him and sold him for 30 pieces of silver; he trusted himself to the leader of the group, who denied him, not only once but three times. He trusted himself to his own creation and to the leaders of his chosen people, who disowned him and handed him over to pagans to be crucified. He continues to entrust himself to us.
Now God seeks a Christmas gift from us. God wants us to trust in Him just as Joseph trusted in him. We have to trust God to remove the fear that prevents us from loving. We have to trust God to protect us from harm when we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid: afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to take a risk.
How often are we like the servant in Our Lord’s parable who buried his talent in the ground rather than risk developing his master’s capital? How often would we rather bury our love within ourselves and lose it rather than risk giving our love to others who may end up hurting us? But love given is never love lost. We have to trust God that his type of love, true love, sacrificial love, can never be squandered. It can only grow in the heart of the giver as we mirror the love of God Himself.
Christmas is not a time for fear. It’s a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep, and he heard an angel say: Do not be afraid.
Perhaps this Christmas, or throughout this season as we meet up with family and friends, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with or bad feelings during the last year. We might worry that we will get hurt again. But is this really important? We have no reason to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us for Christmas the gift of love. We have an infinite supply of love that we can draw on not just on Christmas Day but throughout the year.
Like Saint Joseph, we must have faith and trust in God. We need not fear for the future, rather have hope. And we should never let anything diminish our faith, love, and charity. These are called the theological virtues but they are just really practical ways of being a Christian.
Like Joseph we must name the child born in the manger at Christmas. We must make him an intimate part of our lives so that all he is, and all that we are, may be one.