Joseph was good at fixing things. After all, he was a carpenter, and carpenters had to know how to fix stuff. Give him a door with a broken hinge; a table with a broken leg; a bed with a broken slat, he would fix it and fix it well. If it could be made or fixed with a chisel, saw, hammer and nails, Joseph was your go-to-guy. He knew how to use his hands.
But this situation? This he could not fix – no matter how skilled his hands might be. Mary is to have a baby. He knows he’s not the father. He doesn’t know much else, except the torn despair in his heart, still mingled with the love he has for Mary. What is a ‘doer’ to do? In my imagination, he retires to the wood shop, and absentmindedly starts working with his hand on his latest job, mulling the choices before him. The options were not good:
He could have Mary put to death by stoning according to the Mosaic Law. Or, he could divorce her publicly but that would shame her whole family in a culture where honor and favor were everything. Or he could divorce her quietly, but that would shame him & his family. There was just no way to fix this. Give him a chair that had fallen apart: give him anything made out of wood. That he could fix – but not this. He had wanted to build her a home, to create a family together, but now all of that seemed completely out of his hands.
And so Joseph does what he believes is the most loving thing to do. He does so knowing that it-does-not-fix-everything. He does what he believes Love tells him to do, hoping that God will somehow bring some good out of this. His choice would be to be as loving and true as he could be in the midst of a painful mess which – no matter how hard he tried, no matter how skilled his hands – he could not make okay. He would act and then put the matter into God’s hands.
Note that it is THEN that the angel appears to him. Only AFTER he decided to do the loving thing that the angel appeared in a dream to tell him things were not as they appeared. God had provided wood for his carpenter’s hands – the wood of salvation from the stump of Jesse’s tree. It was for him to fashion a door of welcome fitting for the Lord’s entry into this world. (You are to take Mary into your home.) He was to build a bed for this child to dream about God’s kingdom. (You are to name him Jesus because he will save people from their sins) He was to hew a table for a family to gather around in memory and hope, for sustenance and strength. (They shall name him Emmanuel – God is with us) He was to become a different kind of carpenter, working less with his hands and more with his faith.
It is that decision – to make the most loving choice in the situation as possible – that creates room for God to act. Joseph realizes that God has a hand in this, but so does he. And his loving choice becomes enough for God. And more than enough for Mary and Jesus.
You and I: there is so much we can’t fix either isn’t there? There is stuff in our family that we just can’t make okay. There are things in relationships we just can’t mend. There are things in this world that are beyond our own capacity to make right, no matter how skilled our hands are, how good we are at the doing and fixing of things. But this 4th week of Advent, all 3 days of it, there is one thing we can do. It is to do what Joseph did: to make the most loving choices we can in the midst of whatever it is that is broken. And then to leave the rest in God’s hands. And if we do, THAT will be enough.
I wonder if Joseph knew in that moment of decision all the ways his simple goodness would make a difference in the history of this world. Yet, here we are 2,000 years later telling his story again, and finding strength for our own difficult choices because of what we have seen modeled in him. We may never know, in our moments of decision and surrender, all the ways our simple goodness will make a difference in the history of the world. Yet here at this table, like the one Joseph hewed for his family, we bring the work of our hands and the surrender of our hearts – asking God for the grace, only and always to do the most loving thing in each moment we are able.