Most of us will have noticed just how busy the road traffic is. Now that the school term is coming to an end, the Christmas shopping becomes an urgent priority, which means that with so many people doing the same thing everything slows down, while blood pressures rise and road rage becomes the default normal! Maybe I’m overstating it a little, but increasingly people are beginning to ask how life could be different around Christmas, and do we need all those gifts and all that packaging. Maybe we could be offering gifts of time – ‘We’ll offer to look after the grandchildren so you can go out for a mean’ – that kind of thing.
Is there a way, a realistic way, for us to slow down as Christmas draws near? One year when I was studying in Scotland, I decided to spend Christmas in the Taizé Community in France. Taizé is a small hilltop village in France where thousands of young people gather to join with the brothers in their daily prayer. At Christmas time its cold – yes there was snow and ice on the ground – and there was only about twenty-five young people staying that year. What struck me was the simplicity of the food we ate, and that everyone was involved in preparing the food and doing the washing up. The highlight was gathering in the Church morning, noon and night, to sing the simple but beautiful songs and then to sit in silence for a long time, reflecting on the short Bible reading. I was amazed at how powerful the corporate keeping of silence was.
Oh yes, I forgot to say that to enter this church you needed to take your shoes off, (much like you do if you go to church in Japan). Taking off your shoes means bending down – it becomes a conscious act of humility, preparing us to worship God. I remember the beauty, the silence and the simplicity of that Christmas, which enabled me to focus on the presence of God offered to us in the birth of Jesus.
Our reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent is taken from Matthew’s Gospel where all the familiar stories we find in Luke are missing.
Instead of hearing about Mary, Matthew focuses on Joseph and the important role that he plays on the side-lines of the story.
This a very powerful story about Christian Discipleship. We can only imagine how Joseph felt when he heard that Mary was carrying a baby. It would be natural to feel a deep sense of betrayal, grief and even anger. The decision to divorce Mary would have been very understandable and the normal course of events, but Matthew highlights the thoughtful character of Joseph who decides to do it quietly so that Mary is protected as much as possible.
Joseph comes across as a steady and reliable man, and not the sort of person to react in anger or haste, and respond with a nasty email that he would later regret! No, he’s thought carefully about what he will do, but before he can act he dreams. Remember Joseph the Dreamer in Genesis – his name’s sake? Matthew wants us to make that connection – he wants us to know that God is breaking through into history not just in Mary but also in Joseph, and that God can also break into history in our lives as well, leading us to change the course of our actions.
I have a lot of time for Joseph. He’s a man of principle, of courage and of faith, who chooses to protect and support and love his Mary, and see the child in her womb as a gift of God not just for Mary but also for him, and for so many others. I like the fact that he doesn’t have to prove anything, that he doesn’t want or need to be in the limelight, to push himself forward. In his quiet, steady way we see God at work.