"But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.' "
I am preaching this coming Sunday. The lectionary gospel text focuses on Joseph, and so I have been thinking about fatherhood and what it means.
My own father is a good man who has experienced much sorrow in his life: the death of my mother and youngest brother in a car accident when he was 28, the death of his second wife in another sudden accident when he was 38, a difficult divorce much later in life, and the death of his fourth wife from cancer a few years ago. He has a great love of the outdoors and has found much pleasure and solace over his almost-eight decades in the wild and natural places and things of this continent, sharing some of it with us on family canoe trips into the Canadian wilderness.
But he is not a man of Christian faith, and has little understanding of its pull, or of its role in life.
Thus I overheard him say, as I walked through my house in the first days after Josh died, that "at least she has the comfort of her faith."
I shook my head and moved on. I know there are people who find faith comforting in times of hardship, but I have not been one of them.
I have another father, a spiritual father, in the 80-year-old Jesuit who accompanied me through the Ignatian Exercises. He has continued as my confidant, advisor, counselor, teacher, consoler, and friend in the five years since, even after moving to another city. He's an eloquent writer and has a wicked sense of humor, both of which I have needed and upon which I have greatly relied over the past two years.
In one of his e-mails around the second anniversary of Josh's death, he referred to the "harshness of belief" as something with which I have become well acquainted. Indeed.
When I think about Joseph, and Mary, that term comes to mind. The dream and the encounter. The terrifying reality of the angel, and his bewildering message. The resolve needed to follow through with God's project. The circumstances ~ physical, geographical, political, social ~ all of them less than desirable.
We put out charming nativity scenes ~ we have one in this house ~ and sing cheerful songs, but harshness, rather than charm or cheer, is probably a more appropriate term for what Christmas presents.
Comfort, comfort ye my people. There is, as it turns out, a profound comfort hiding within the harshness, but it is not the comfort of platitudes or sentimental reassurances. It is the comfort of Immanuel, God with us, and of the demanding pull toward that presence even when all circumstances seem to indicate that turning away might be the more rational choice.