Third Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; Luke 1:46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
13 December 2020
“He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.” – John 1:8
John the Baptist was a man “sent by God”. He was a man on a mission to introduce the public ministry of Jesus. When John spoke of Jesus, he said: “I am not fit to unlace his sandals.” This was not false humility on John’s part. He was just saying that he had found something bigger than himself. A guarantee of personal misery is to live for self. Happiness and selfishness cannot be centred in the same person.
It is difficult to be objective about one’s self, but think of days in your life when you have been preoccupied with yourself, when the biggest issue in the world was you. Then think of days when you have known a wonderful sense of fulfilment. These experiences never overlap.
One problem with a self-centred life is that it is dishonest. We cannot imagine John forgetting Jesus and seeking to put himself front and centre. John’s greatness lay in his realism. That is easy to see in the experience of John. But what about ourselves? With all the grave issues we are facing in the world, I cannot count my own desires, problems and needs as most important. That may be a human tendency, but I do not have to give in to it. There are other people, other needs, other problems, other hopes and other disappointments. John was able to forget himself, move out and place something superior at the centre. This is the essence of a great life: deliverance from enslavement to self.
What Jesus did for John, he has done for people ever since. He enlarges a person’s capacity by giving him or her a purpose outside the self. Christianity is a call to what is beyond, to a life bigger than my own.
Lord, give us the grace to see the needs and problems of others as well as our own. Amen.
Fr Sean Cullen
The Dream of Saint Joseph – Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674)
“The Dream of Saint Joseph”, c. 1642–43. Oil on canvas, 209.5 x 155.8 cm. The National Gallery, London. Public Domain.
Abraham, St Paul tells us, was “convinced that God had power to do what he had promised. This is the faith that was ‘considered as justifying him’” (Rm 4:21–22). Like his father Abraham, Joseph was also justified by faith. The tests to which his faith was put resemble the tests of Abraham himself. Therefore, St Matthew calls Joseph a “just” man, a righteous man. In the Scriptures, righteousness was a quality which reflected God’s Covenant with his people. A person who was “right” with God was one who sought to do God’s will in every situation.
Joseph is called a just man because he did the right thing with regard to Mary, his wife. Somehow, with love’s insight, he knew Mary’s innocence and holiness. It would not be right to expose her to the severity of the Law of Moses. As a man of the Covenant, endowed with God’s own compassion, Joseph could only be gentle with Mary.
As a son of David, Joseph would have had hopes of paternity. But with Mary pregnant by another, Joseph’s hopes of paternity seem to be as fully frustrated as Abraham’s were when his wife, Sarah, proved to be sterile. But in deciding to put Mary away, could Joseph not find another wife and so become a father?
God commands Joseph not to divorce Mary. Perhaps, Abraham was better off! He at least finally had a son of his own flesh through the miraculous end to Sarah’s sterility. But Joseph’s hope for natural fatherhood would not be fulfilled. He would not have a son of his own flesh. He would have to accept someone else’s son as his own.
A just man is essentially a man of faith who hopes in God. Of Joseph, as of Abraham, it can be said, “He put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness” (Gn 15:6). A just man is open to receive the fulfilment of God’s incredible promises. And so, faith is really a complete surrender to God that he might accomplish in him whatever he wants. This is why St Paul speaks of faith as obedience (cf. Rm 1:5).
And so, Joseph receives God’s richest blessings. God’s two greatest treasures are given to Joseph as his own—Jesus, God’s own Son, and Mary, the mother of this Son. Jesus is truly Joseph’s son because Mary, Jesus’ mother, is truly Joseph’s wife. Jesus is thus lawfully born into Joseph’s family.
So, when Joseph accepts someone else’s son as his own, it is not a frustration of his hope for paternity, but rather a marvellous fulfilment of these hopes. Joseph’s fulfilment surpasses that of Abraham, for he receives Jesus, Abraham’s son who is God, whereas Abraham received Isaac who was only a promise of the greater Son to come.
St Paul assures us, “All baptised in Christ … you are one in Christ Jesus. Merely by belonging to Christ you are the posterity of Abraham, the heirs he was promised” (Ga 3:27–29). If Joseph is the father of Jesus in a real sense, then he is father of all who are “one in Christ Jesus”. By his self-sacrificing faith, Joseph has become the father of us all, inheriting this title more fully than Abraham himself.
Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674) presents us with Gabriel suspended above St Joseph and surrounded by a soft ray of light, pointing with one hand to heaven, and with the other to Mary. Kneeling before the open Scriptures, Mary glances towards the angel, her arms crossed in complete submission to God’s will. The angel seems to be suggesting that Joseph imitate that total self-giving.
Joseph has always been considered the patron saint of workers, particularly carpenters and joiners. Scattered on the floor are his tools—a wooden mallet, chisel and axe. He is shown as youthful rather than elderly as was more common. The ornate chair and tasselled cushion on which Joseph rests his head are at odds with the simplicity of his garments. But Champaigne’s figures in all his paintings were inspired by classical sculpture.
This subject was a common feature in 17th century painting, promoted by, among others, St Francis de Sales (+ 1622) and Pope Gregory XV who in 1621 had instituted the feast of Saint Joseph on 19 March.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
Fr Sean Cullen is the parish priest of St Thomas Aquinas Parish in Bowral, St Michael’s Parish in Mittagong and the administrator of Holy Family Parish in Ingleburn. He was ordained in 1984 and has served in a number of parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. Over the years, he has undertaken various diocesan roles including vocations director, master of ceremonies, chair of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and member of the Council of Priests. He is currently the diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.