The angel Gabriel says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David…. Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[a] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[b] will be holy; he will be called Son of God..”
Today we hear Matthew’s account focusing on Joseph.
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Both stories share a common theme, the conception of Jesus and a common refrain: “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
“Do not be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife.”
From the perspective of mortal mind, Mary and Joseph have a lot to be afraid of. Mary is afraid of being abandoned by Joseph and ostracized by her community for committing adultery.
Joseph is afraid of ridicule and shame, leading to a significant loss of status as a man who can’t control his fiancé and is raising another man’s child.
From the human perspective this unplanned out of wedlock pregnancy is an unmitigated disaster. And yet they both agree to it.
Why is that?
It is because they both live inside a worldview in which it is possible for God to reach them through divine messengers known as angels.
Here’s the question: do we live inside such a worldview in which God’s will can be communicated to us?
My spiritual director back in in the 80s, said that when the monks were building the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia in the late 1940s, he was on the roof, three stories up, and he leaned over the edge to nail in a shingle—and he felt his weight shift and he started to fall, until he felt a wind, pushing him back onto the roof. He was convinced this was his guardian angel saving his life.
He, like Mary and Joseph, lived inside a worldview where heaven and earth were not only connected but also interacted moment by moment. While we may sing about angels most of us have been trained to not believe in supernatural interventions into the closed system of Newtonian cause and effect. The nativity is a fine story for children to act out at Christmas, but come the New Year we let fantasy go as we slip into reality. Which means even if such things as angels do exist, we are not equipped to see them.
Many of you have been on business retreats and watched that video that was famous 30 years ago in which you are told to watch the men and women throw basketballs back and forth and to count the number of throws. Most people, however, who follow the directions fail to notice a full-grown man in a gorilla suit walk across the court.
We don’t see it, because we aren’t looking for it. When we watch the video a second time, we can’t believe we could have missed it.
It’s sort of like when we put in the new copier machine which requires a log-in number to be used. Well, obviously that means you have to ask someone for the log-in, so we don’t notice it is printed in large block letters on the wall directly in front of us.
So, if we don’t believe God’s messengers interact with human beings, then we could be surrounded by them and never notice.
I used to think I had to believe in the supernatural occurrences even though I really didn’t. It took me decades before I realized I was coming at this totally wrong.
What if there is no category called supernatural, because nature itself is full of Divine Presence. If the natural world is being held in being at every moment by Spirit, and Spirit is as natural in nature as trees and people, then when Spirit does something unexpected, it isn’t a supernatural event but merely an unusual natural event.
Our mystics see this clearly: I think of the 19th century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins whose poetry wasn’t discovered until years after his death when his best friend finally released his poems to the world. Hopkins shattered poetic conventions and shattered a view of the world that doesn’t include God. You’ll remember this poem from high school:
world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
To see and to live only on the surface of things gives us a fearful vision of the universe as a cold and empty thing, full of sin, disease, and death.
To live inside a world sustained by Spirit, Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus Christ, Spirit that hovers over Mary and dreams with Joseph, is to be open to receiving God’s grandeur in every moment.
–Inside this kind of universe Mary and Joseph are faithful to God’s call because God is always faithful to them.
Faith is not, first of all, an intellectual belief in the story of Jesus. Faith, at its heart, is living in a new way, because Jesus frees us to live inside his view of the world.
So, each morning let’s say our prayers, in order to step out of mortal mind’s empty and threatening universe, and step into the creation where an angel says to us, “Do not be afraid, for every moment is conceived by Holy Spirit.”