Homily, Advent Sunday 4A
I’ve always greatly admired St. Joseph, and he’s always been a special patron of mine. In the year 1870, St. Joseph was named the patron of the entire universal Church; he is also the patron of our Cathedral and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and he’s the patron of my home parish in Elk Point, so at every level of the Church I saw that St. Joseph was always praying for me. He and I seem to have a lot in common as well. From all indications, he was a man of very few words. In fact, in the whole Bible, we don’t find any words of St. Joseph recorded. And—here’s something we might all find encouraging—I’ve always considered St. Joseph to be a special patron of those who fall asleep during prayer, because so many of his most important communications from God occurred while he was sleeping, through dreams.
In today’s Gospel, God communicates his will to St. Joseph in a dream, challenging his understanding of God’s plan for him and his wife, and even calling him beyond the practices that were considered acceptable and justified in his own day. At the time of St. Joseph, this righteous man, according to societal standards and even in Jewish practice, it would have been perfectly justifiable for him to divorce his wife, when he knew that the child she was bearing was not his own. But God calls St. Joseph to something greater, something almost unimaginable, to become the guardian and foster-father of God’s own Son. Amazingly, once St. Joseph knows what God’s will is for his marriage, he immediately obeys and takes Mary, his wife, into his home, even though he probably still struggles to fully understand what this is all going to mean for him, how this is possible, and what sacrifices he will be called upon to make as he becomes the Head of the Holy Family and the Husband of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. In faith, St. Joseph is able to follow God’s call, to go beyond the standards and practices considered acceptable in his own day.
Throughout history, God challenges and calls His holy people beyond the standards of the world around them. Jesus challenged His Jewish contemporaries on their understanding of marriage and divorce, calling them on to something greater, to the indissolubility of marriage. It’s not surprising then, that authentically Christian marriage has always had standards that go beyond those of secular society. What makes Catholic teaching distinctive is that it is not a product of man-made religion; Catholic teaching is not subject to the same changes and shifts that we see in secular society or popular culture. Fundamentally, the Church’s teaching is not about what we think of God or our search for God or heaven or happiness.
Catholic teaching is about Revelation that comes from God. Christmas is all about God coming to us, seeking us out, God’s initiative to reveal Himself in human flesh, and as He does so, God challenges our understanding of ourselves and, in faith, calls us beyond what we thought was possible, beyond even our own desires. God reveals His design and plan for humanity, and in doing so, he also makes clear those things that are incompatible with our true fulfillment.
In our own day, God continues to call us beyond what the world offers us, to fulfill His will and to cooperate with our salvation in Christ. And the difference between the Catholic standards that have been revealed by God and the standards of the world is still most noticeable in this area of marriage, divorce, and chastity. Marriage and the family are the very foundation of society itself, and yet, we have seen in recent years how quickly this foundation seems to be shifting under our feet. But God, through the Catholic Church, continues to call us to something greater, despite the prevailing currents of society.
Now I realize that there are even many well-intentioned Catholics who think that the Church will eventually just have to accept things like gay marriage, contraception, cohabitation and sexual relations prior to marriage, or divorce and re-marriage without recourse to the annulment process. There may even be Catholics who think that the Church will eventually accept abortion, but I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is the custodian and steward of God’s Revelation, the Church is not its Master or Author. There is no Pope, no bishop, no council which has the power to change what God has revealed once and for all, even to make things easier for us or to make the Church more fashionable to society. Personally, I consider it to be the height of false compassion to offer people the false hope that the Church’s teaching could change in these areas of God’s plan for human sexuality.
Please don’t misunderstand me. It is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the Church, to alienate or to exclude anyone. Every last human being is invited into faith and relationship with Jesus Christ and into His Church, but if God has a real plan for us, and if He desires our free cooperation in that plan, if we’re called not just to be passive onlookers, but to actually take up our cross and follow Christ and become His disciples, it only makes sense that there are behaviors, choices that we can make, sins that we can commit that place us outside of God’s plan for us, that take us off the Path that Christ lays out for us, and these require repentance. Almost everyone still acknowledges murder as something that definitely places us outside of God’s plan, but there are many other actions that fall short or go against what God asks of us.
Please also understand that I hope to have, and hope that everyone will have, the utmost compassion for those who experience homosexual attractions, for those who go through divorce and would like to try marriage again, for married couples who contracept, and for couples who live together before being married, many of whom have never been presented with any clear alternative to what the world offers. We all sin in different ways, and I am a sinner as well. I’m often more blameworthy because of all that has been entrusted to me, but we don’t do anyone any favors by condoning behaviors and lifestyles that God has revealed cannot lead to their true happiness and fulfillment, according to His plan for our lives.
Please pray for me as a shepherd of God’s people. And may St. Joseph intercede for us all, to follow Christ in real faith, as God continues to challenge every one of us to become His holy ones, to become Saints, to endure many trials and to go beyond the standards of this passing world, to experience a joy and lasting peace that is far greater than anything we could ask or imagine.