When I was a university campus minister, the students often complained to me, “Father, I’m going through such a hard time right now.” The nature of the “hard time” varied from student to student. Some were having a “hard time” because a long-term dating relationship (that had lasted less than a semester) had come to an end. For others, the “hard time” was the result of facing Exam Week without having done any studying at all for the entire length of the semester. Occasionally, a student suffered the “hard time” of declaring a new major concentration for the fourth time in a row, necessitating at least a sixth year to complete a bachelor’s degree.
The real problem faced by all those students was that they were products of a culture that embraces extremely unrealistic expectations. We are told that life should be carefree, easy, and always affirming; this is utter nonsense.
Today’s Gospel reading indicates that Joseph was deeply troubled by the news of Mary’s pregnancy. He was going to divorce her, but he had a dream of angels telling him to marry. He followed the angels’ instructions but doing so could not have allayed all his concerns. Nor was this event the last time that Joseph had to struggle with difficult choices, highly unusual circumstances, or extraordinary demands.
It is important to note that Joseph never complained, despite his many difficulties. Unlike the fashion today, he did not make himself the center of attention by listing the many, tragic burdens he carried. Nor did he try to lighten his burdens by burdening others. Joseph struggled silently until God’s promises were fulfilled.
As we are products of a culture that considers struggle, effort, and failure to be the equivalent of mortal sins, it’s probably impossible for us to appreciate the fact that struggle, effort, and failure are normal, ordinary, even necessary. Joseph’s actions in Matthew’s Gospel are exemplary but not extraordinary. Unlike Mary, he possessed no unique graces. Joseph persevered through the challenges he faced; he did so because there was no better course of action. Joseph would be an appropriate patron saint for our time – if it weren’t for the fact that we tend to idolize overpaid professional athletes who complain bitterly about the legitimate judgments of referees.
Joseph faced extraordinary burdens without collapsing or losing courage. What was the secret of his strength? I think it was the fact that he allowed himself to be weak. He was content in his struggles. He trusted completely in God and was not troubled by the fact that he couldn’t trust completely in the world or himself.
Joseph is an example of how to face the difficulties that are unavoidable in life. There is nothing extraordinary about having to live with the foibles and failings of one’s spouse, children, parents, relatives, or friends; no one should consider it an extraordinary burden to have a normal life in which one’s own failings and the failings of others interrupt one’s peace and tranquility. Joseph, the righteous man, faced these same burdens, but did so without faltering.
Perhaps, you are burdened this Christmas season by your unrealistic expectations for a perfect Christmas celebration and, consequently, you are weighed down by stress of your own making. Perhaps, you are legitimately concerned about the course of the pandemic, the numbers of those who have lost their lives thus far, and the numbers of those who do not seem to care about public health.
Regardless of the nature of the burdens you carry, St. Joseph is an example to follow. At those times when he was dealing with difficult circumstances, he was satisfied to be burdened. At all times, he trusted God – and God’s will always wins out, in the end.
You’re familiar with the aphorism “the light at the end of the tunnel.” If you’ve been stressed out by preparations for Christmas, there’s light at the end of the tunnel because Christmas has nearly concluded. Many people wish that they could say about the pandemic that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. St. Joseph never looked for the light at the end of the tunnel because he lived in the light of God’s Word.
The Incarnation of God’s Word in human flesh happened once, for all of us that we might allow the Word of God to take flesh in our lives, in our worries, in our triumphs, in our joys, in our sorrows, even in our struggles. God’s Word fills our lives with light that never dims, not even in hard times.