King Robert the Bruce, Sir Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and many other famous people throughout the centuries and across the globe, have had one particular thing in common. In fact, this is something that virtually all people share: humble beginnings. We all begin as vulnerable, helpless and defenceless babies, unable to survive without the care of others, who are usually our parents. Nobody can skip that phase of life, and without that early stage of absolute dependence, no achievements are possible. Whatever and whoever we are has been made possible thanks to our parents. They tried to do their best to create the best possible environment for our development. Their efforts certainly were not flawless (nobody’s perfect) but surely were benevolent.
Today’s gospel is a kind of introduction to the festive season of Christmas, and it takes place months before Jesus’ birth. At Midnight Mass we’ll listen to the description of supernatural events accompanying the nativity, like bright lights, angelic choirs and shepherds going to worship baby Jesus. But today’s narrative is much more sober and restrained. The decorative angelic intervention aside, it displays the tensions and uncertainties of a young couple facing their first serious marital crisis. Seemingly it’s going to finish them off even before their marriage really starts. Joseph inclines to one of the simplest ‘solutions’: he has decided to divorce Mary. Seemingly it’s a favourite option considered by many modern couples facing problems in family life, and the fear of divorce holds many back from entering into formal marriage.
In today’s gospel it is an angel talking to Joseph who has managed to change his decision. I think there are two possible explanations for Joseph’s U-turn; both are plausible, and even complementary. The first one is hinted in these words: ‘he had made up his mind to divorce her when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…’ Joseph probably had a sleepless night, pondering his situation. All of us have experienced something similar when something important has happened or was about to happen in our lives. Perhaps Joseph managed to convince himself to give his marriage a chance. As a religious man, he was following his moral compass and beliefs. The second possible explanation is in the very word ‘angel’, which literally means ‘a messenger’, and its biblical Hebrew equivalent doesn’t specify its nature. So it didn’t necessarily have to be a supernatural heavenly creature; it simply might have been someone who was talking to Joseph, who managed to convince him to give his marriage another chance.
Today’s gospel clearly exemplifies that married life has never and nowhere been easy. Tempted by apparently better opportunities, torn apart by resentments, made out of two people driven by different, sometimes contradictory expectations and desires, facing economic hurdles and anxieties, family life is a challenge; or, rather more precisely, a seemingly never-ending string of challenges. Our modern culture, despite all its commendable merits, has shaped our approach to broken things. Nowadays nobody fixes them anymore; they are being replaced. This wasteful approach unintentionally has been adapted to our relationships too. Emotionally battered and exhausted people, sometimes your adult children or friends, need good motivation and support to make efforts to start, to develop, and to preserve their family lives. Though adult and seemingly independent, they still need their parents and friends to achieve the one thing that tops all the surveys of desirable goods: the family.