We are in the middle of the Christmas period, enjoying extensively the company of our families and friends, or secretly wishing it would all finally be over. Some people spent Christmas in darkness and in cold, some fought against the violent weather, and some were stuck in airports, train or bus stations, unable to travel. I guess that many of those unlucky ones wished they had known better, that they had done better. It’s a common feeling when something has gone wrong that we regret our decisions or actions. Sometimes we blame following our gut feeling, while another time we blame having exactly the opposite attitude. Somewhere deep inside, everyone dreams of having an infallible crystal ball making our predictions much better.
It seems so easy for Joseph in today’s gospel. Each time he’s got a problem, an angel tells him what to do and where to go. We can agree that either Joseph’s or his family’s lives have some complications and difficulties, but that they can cope with them easily, having heavenly assistance at their fingertips. It is easy to be a holy family when you always make right decisions. It’s not so with us. When facing problems it’s up to us to assess the situation, to consider possible solutions, to make the right decisions, to put them in motion. We do all these just to find out that we’ve been wrong somewhere in the process and the final result is far from expected and sometimes completely opposite to what was intended. Unless you are a politician: then you are always right.
The story in today’s gospel seems to be in line with a centuries-long tradition of tales about the lives of saints who were never making mistakes, never having doubts; they were always talking and doing the right things, they were always perfect and immaculate. To us they almost look like inhuman creatures, so alien to our everyday experience of misjudgement, misunderstanding, misconduct and small-scale yet painful failures. Interestingly, those parts of the gospel talking about Jesus’ public ministry clearly display imperfections, mistakes, failures, cowardice and even betrayal by his closest disciples. We call them ‘saints’ though their misconduct is clearly and embarrassingly revealed in the Bible.
The story of Joseph and his family in today’s gospel, though unbearably polished, can teach us something useful and applicable to everyday life. I’m absolutely sure that Joseph, like us, had his moments of doubts, uncertainties, anxieties and fears. Like us he had to consider different options and quite likely he saw no solution for the time being. In his struggle he was turning to God in prayer; for a pious Jew it was the natural thing to do. And God was responsive, as He’s always been and still is.
Prayer itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee infallibility – we’ve seen too many examples of this in the church. But prayer combined with common sense, knowledge, selflessness and proper self-assessment can be a powerful instrument to live a good life, when even mistakes and failures serve the greater good.