My Place at the Stable

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In this detail from de la Tour’s moving portrayal of the birth of Jesus, we see Joseph’s hand tenderly guiding the candle’s light to illuminate the Christ-child’s face. 
In the Isaiah passage for this day, the prophet foretells the coming of Christ with the language, “Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In this peaceful painting, Joseph’s first gesture tells of his own fatherly love.
Georges de la Tour, painting in France in the early 17th century, was deeply affected by a religious revival based upon the teachings of the 12th century mystic, Francis of Assisi.  

— Art in the Christian Tradition, Vanderbilt

The Seventeenth Day of Advent
December 17, 2019

I have been thinking throughout this Advent season about my place at the stable. On the idea that many people gathered around the stable took various positions — some in the front or at the back, some directly facing the manger, some viewing the Child from a point farther away, angels hovering above — I wonder where my place might have been or, more importantly, where do I stand around the stable today?

Joseph, it seems, is often seen standing at the back of the stable, non- obtrusive, taking a back seat to Mary and the Christ Child. Ann Weems writes about Joseph standing at the back of the stable:

GETTING TO THE FRONT OF THE STABLE

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man, Joseph, was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.

This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Emmanuel.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of a stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings. . .

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed
the Christ Child.

As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child
who brought us life.

— Ann Weems

Not much more can be said about Joseph’s place at the stable, for indeed, he was the man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph managed his own emotions about Mary’s extraordinary and unexpected pregnancy with the help of an angel. He moved beyond his fears, his bewilderment, his concerns, perhaps even his mistrust or anger towards Mary and, certainly, his shattered reputation and his need to maintain his morality and his righteousness.

After pondering the angel’s visit, and his options, a slightly confused Joseph took a God-risk and moved into that bewildering relationship. He did it with courage and because of his trust in God’s word brought by an angel. And then he embraced his relationship with Mary, took her to Bethlehem, created a sheltering place, attended the birth of the Infant Christ and waited by faith for another angel message, or a star, or whatever else might burst into their lives.

Joseph’s story is a bit like ours — our stories of bewilderment, confusion, reluctance and, finally, our holy resolve to accept God’s plan for our lives and follow the journey God lays before us. And isn’t that a picture of Advent’s journey? Where is our place at the stable?Don’t we need to find our place near the Child this Advent and for all Advents to come? Doesn’t this season lead us steadily through the sacred path that leads us to the holy Child of Bethlehem . . .

So that we can, once again, experience the joy of his birth?

So that we can feel more deeply the emotions of Mary and Joseph?

So that we can, once again, hear angel voices?

So that Bethlehem’s star seems so near that we can almost touch it?B3E09502-8AB9-46F0-BB97-2C135F651B24

And so that our destinies will be fulfilled and our lives will be highly favored by God?

For all of these graces of Advent,
thanks be to God. Amen.

Joy!

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The Third Sunday in Advent
The Sunday of Joy
December 15, 2019

How I love the pink candle on this day of joy! We light the purple ones each week until today, and then there is this surprising burst of color — lighter, brighter, pink — that proclaims to us that life for us is joy.  Always! 

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And joy is ever-present within us. No matter the circumstances we face, joy is waiting to emerge from our deep-down place. Joy was a part of the package that entered our lives when we professed our faith in Christ, and joy was there when we received grace, acceptance and God’s abiding presence. And so today we reflect on that joy and, like Mary, we treasure it and ponder it in our hearts. (Luke 2:19)

Now about Mary, God-chosen Mary — her joy must have been overwhelming when the surprise from out of nowhere was delivered by an angel! And yet, other emotions came along with that joy — fear, confusion, bewilderment, concern. And questions! Many questions like “How could this happen?”

I do not need to tell you that questions, fears, concerns are always a part of our lives, but underneath them in our inner soul, joy abides. Consistent, continual joy that hides until we really need it and then bursts upon us to remind us that the troubles of the day are superseded. Then we know the truth of what we heard from the beginning: “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Mary sang of deep joy in her devotion to God —“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” But there was for her a barrage of other emotions. The poetry of Ann Weems explores that:

MARY, NAZARETH GIRL

Mary,
Nazareth girl:
What did you know of ethereal beings
with messages from God?

What did you know of men
when you found yourself with child?

What did you know of babies,
you, barely out of childhood yourself?

God-chosen girl:
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable
blessed among women?

Could it be that you had been ready
waiting
listening
for the footsteps
of an angel?

Could it be there are messages for us
if we have the faith to listen?

—Ann Weems

Maybe, just maybe, Mary “had been ready, waiting, listening for the footsteps of an angel?” And in that holy visitation, I imagine that the emotion she felt most deeply in her soul was joy. She was destined to be the mother of the Christ Child, the mother who would lead him and teach him and prepare him.

Emulating the young girl, Mary, let us face the obstacles and surprises that come our way, knowing that our deepest, abiding joy will arise in us when we most need it. D1528A68-0B1C-4D2C-83F9-D0AD87481E1C

Our message for this Sunday of Joy sings to us the words of a beloved carol:

O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

Today’s good word — and the lighting of the pink candle — urges us to never forget the promise: “Tidings of comfort and joy!”

We probably won’t hear the flutter of angel wings or the footsteps of an angel coming to us when our joy shows up. But with God, who knows?