Of all the secular world’s contributions to the celebration of Christmas, one of my favorites is A Charlie Brown Christmas, released fifty-four years ago this month. Charlie Brown—a kind of everyman—often appears to himself and others much like the sad-looking Christmas tree he procures: dull, lowly, and slightly inadequate. Yet in the end, the anger and resentment of the crowd gives way to a poignant intervention from Linus: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
In the first Preface of Advent, the Church reflects on the fact that “at his first coming, [Christ] assumed the lowliness of human flesh.” It is Christ’s poverty and simplicity, his lowliness, that are the most remarkable and unexpected characteristics of this first coming. After all, is there anything more vulnerable than an infant lying among animal stalls? Yet in gazing at Christ in this “lowliness of human flesh”—even in the womb of the Virgin mother—we look upon our own poverty and dependence. We recognize ourselves to be withered trees, burdened not with too-large ornaments, but with anxiety, discouragement, and stress.
In the Catholic tradition, devotions like the Hail Mary, the Angelus, and the first decade of the Rosary reflect upon the mysterious interaction between God’s chosen messenger and the woman who, in giving her assent, became God’s chosen mother. But Joseph, too, received an announcement from an angel. It is relayed in another place: Matthew’s Gospel. And it is framed within Matthew’s broader story of the birth of Jesus, read at the Vigil Mass for Christmas (with or without the genealogy), along with a daily Mass and a Sunday Mass of Advent. In this version, we are told simply that Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” The straightforward language veils the drama and confusion of the hour. How did this become known to Joseph? What was he to make of this? Even now, what are we to make of it?
The account then focuses on Joseph’s interior struggle. Many of us were taught that Joseph believed Mary to be unfaithful, and so wanted to divorce her. But the Scriptural evidence, some scholars argue, is ambiguous on this point. All that is clear is that Joseph cannot make sense of what is happening.
There’s another way to read the account: Perhaps this iustus vir, this “just man,” truly believed that something unique had happened to Mary, his betrothed. But Joseph, like so many of us, found himself unable to say “yes” to being such a close participant in what was unfolding in front of him. Joseph was scared of what God wanted of him.
This should not surprise us. After the great theophany at Sinai, the people send Moses “into the breach” as mediator because they are afraid to speak with God directly. In instances of angelic visitations in the Old Testament, the immediate responses are remarkably similar: I am going to die, for I have seen God face to face. Joseph, the Son of David, is looking straight at God’s definitive work of redemption in embryonic form, and considers himself unworthy to be a part of it. He follows the pattern of so many iusti viri of his ancestry: Jeremiah (“Lord, I know not how to speak; I am too young”), Isaiah (“I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”), even Moses himself (“I am slow of speech and of tongue”).
It is precisely then, in the midst of his fear and sense of unworthiness, intending to extricate himself from this situation, that Joseph receives his annunciation: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” Do not be afraid. Mary had already heard the exact same words from the angel. At issue here is not anger at an unfaithful fiancé, or the proper interpretation of the law against adultery, but fear and confusion, and a message from God: Do not be afraid.
Our world contains much to make us afraid. And yet, as much as we have great anxiety about the problems, are we not even more fearful of the solution? When God makes himself known to us, is this not even more unsettling? We humans have developed sophisticated coping mechanisms to numb the effects of sin. But when God demonstrates that he wants us to be part of his work of restoring creation at the root, it is often all too much. We feel like Charlie Brown, with so little to offer, criticized by the crowd, yet often convinced that our inadequacy is much deeper than even they realize.
Thankfully, God does not spurn us because of our reluctance. In fact, as with Joseph, he reveals a bit more of his plan: “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
We know the rest of the story: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” In response to the message of the angel, Joseph accepts his role in God’s plan, despite his failure to comprehend it. This would not be the last time that Joseph—like his namesake from Genesis—would discern God’s will in a dream and then act on it. He is indeed a “just man,” one whose entire life was about giving himself over to God’s will for his life, despite his ignorance and imperfections.
As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, we would do well to contemplate the two annunciations to this most unique couple. The announcements were tailored to each person’s individual situation, and yet contained the same fundamental message: God had come to visit his people; he had “remembered his promise of mercy.” In a supreme irony, he was sending a small child to solve all the problems of the world. And he chose to involve a peasant girl and a common laborer in his action. May we all ask for the grace to accept the humility of God and his choice to make room for us—lowly as we are—in his plan of salvation. After all, that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Father Eric J. Banecker is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
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