Although it is God who makes the first move, he never forces himself on us and always allows us to answer for ourselves. In response to his invitations to us we can answer yes, or no. God allows that. But our responses are rarely, if ever, quite that straightforward. And so, God also allows us to answer with a combination of yes and no. After all, we are complicated creatures; and even when we say yes with our lips, this so often comes with at least a touch of no.
In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent we find God yet again making the first move, this time coming into Joseph’s life and inviting him to play a role in the history of salvation. Of course, Joseph does not know the significance of what he is being asked to take part in. From his perspective he is in a dilemma. He cares for Mary, his betrothed, but she is with child. This is very difficult for him, and he is facing a serious embarrassment both for himself and for Mary.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Joseph was preparing to do what most men of his time and place would do, but to do this in as kind a way as possible. He would divorce Mary quietly. Then God intervenes and sends his angel to Joseph in a dream, revealing to him something of what marvelous things were taking place, that Mary had conceived a son by the Holy Spirit and that he was to be called Jesus. Nowhere is it documented what Joseph’s words were in response to this, or even if he said anything at all about it. But we know that his response was very much a yes. For Joseph went and did what the Lord commanded him. He took Mary into his home.
It’s worth comparing this with the account of the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1.26-38). In many ways the two accounts are similar, but there are some important differences. Mary is also visited by an angel and the angel tells her about the son she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and who would be called Jesus. And at the end of the angel’s message Mary says, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ Unlike Joseph, her words are recorded. But like Joseph her response to God was yes.
Catholics believe that Mary was conceived free from Original Sin and so lived a fully redeemed life. Because of this, Mary was granted the special privilege that all her responses to God were yes to God, and not only yes to God, but pure, unalloyed by sin, by negativity, by resistance. And here we have perhaps another difference regarding what we can say about the responses of Joseph and of Mary. I do not claim to have an inside scoop to what graces were present in Joseph when he did what the Lord commanded him, but I suspect that even the very positive response of so a great saint as Joseph was touched at least to some extent by the same sorts of complexities as are found in your responses to God and in my responses to God.
Now, even though this is to speak of human complexity and imperfection, Joseph’s story is, I think, deeply encouraging for all of us. Sometimes people think that for our responses to be meaningful they need to be perfect. The trouble with this is that if we insist upon perfection in ourselves and in others, for pure motives in ourselves and in others, then we will have to wait a very long time. Instead, we need to acknowledge the imperfection in ourselves and in others and come to see that God can do truly marvelous things, even with our highly imperfect responses.
There is an old joke about a person in an isolated spot asking for directions. The reply given is: ‘Well, I can show you the way, but if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’ The joke is that we always start from whatever place is here. There is no other place we can start from. And the same is true of our relationships with God, our relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves. We always start from where we are.
God works with us where we are but can bring us to where we ought to be. But he starts with where are. God came into the life of Joseph, a righteous man, and brought him to great sanctity. But God works with people far more flawed than Joseph and does marvelous things with them. We see this in the lives of the saints, some of whom were great sinners, but who were brought to lives of great sanctity. God did not demand a perfect response from them, but God helped shape their ongoing responses as they journeyed with him.
After all, God continues to make the first move even after we say yes.