Meeting Joseph at the Home Depot
Homily preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2010
Who is Joseph? When we look at the Holy Family, we see Jesus, about whom we know so much. We see Mary, who holds a place of honor in our hearts. But what about Joseph?
We know so little about him. But maybe we know more than we think.
We learn a little about Joseph in today’s gospel reading. Here we see a truly heroic figure whose courage is somewhat forgotten.
The reading tells us that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. In ancient times, a betrothal was more than what we today know as an engagement. It was basically already a marriage, waiting only for an official recognition or a feast.
So you can imagine Joseph’s shock on learning that Mary was pregnant. This was traumatic.
According to the law at the time, Mary was subject to death by stoning if she was pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s. Joseph faced a dilemma. He would have had to testify against Mary and say the child was not his. Mary could have been subjected to the death penalty. Or he could say the child was his and go against everything his macho culture stood for.
Following the guidance of the angel, Joseph decided not to turn Mary in, or even to quietly divorce her. In his integrity he ignored the law in favor of this poor pregnant teenager, for Mary was most likely about 14 or 15 at the time.
We can often forget that in past times people married at much earlier ages than we today might consider acceptable. My own grandmother, Maria Lucia Alvarado, was married for the first time, against her will, at the age of 15.
I have a photograph of her on her wedding day, February 3, 1919. She had cut it in half. Only her side of the marriage photo exists. The other half with her first husband, was consigned to the trash. In the photo she looks exactly like one of my sisters; I have no idea what he looks like.
We all have family stories. One of the most interesting family stories I have is of my great-great-grandfather Fernando Alvarado. According to an account written in Spanish by my great-grandmother Jesus, his father, also named Fernando, was born about 1810 in San Francisco.
According to the family story, the younger Fernando travelled from San Francisco with his sister Brigida to visit relatives in Sinaloa. But the long journey from San Francisco made him violently seasick, and he vowed never to board another boat.
So Fernando stayed in Sinaloa, married and lived his life around Mazatlan. His son Jose Maria, my great-grandfather, settled in Ensenada and married his wife, Jesus, at the cathedral of St. Joseph in San Diego in 1895.
Five years later they emigrated to Los Angeles with three children, settling in a poor section of town a couple of blocks from the church of Our Lady of the Angels near today’s Olvera Street, at the corner of North Broadway and Cesar Chavez Avenue.
Their residence was two rooms in a cheap wooden shack: a kitchen six by 10 feet with a wood-burning stove and one other room with a bed and a chair. They got their water from a pump in a courtyard. It was a dangerous and disease-ridden place; their first daughter Beatriz died there at the age of four in September of 1900.
Why this tangent on my family history? Because it tells us something about Joseph.
In today’s gospel reading we hear another family story, of an angel guiding Joseph to make the right decision, possibly saving Mary’s life — and the life of the child within her. But after Christmas we will hear a little more about Joseph. About how he and his wife and child fled to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the children commanded by King Herod.
Imagine Mary and Joseph in Egypt with a small child. They did not speak the language. They knew nothing of the customs there. They had no support system. They were poor immigrants, with Joseph scrambling to get whatever work he could to feed his family.
The 1900 U.S. Census told me something about my great-grandfather Jose Maria, Joseph. Under the column for employment, it said “day laborer.” He had been a merchant in Ensenada. But like Joseph, he did what he had to do to provide for his growing family in a foreign land.
Joseph was a man whose life was constantly upended, and he took it in stride. Some gossip told him his fiance was pregnant. He is required by law to go to Bethlehem just when his wife is ready to give birth. They can’t find a place to stay. Shortly thereafter they have to flee to another country, where he struggles to provide for his new family.
If even one of these things happened to us, it would be traumatic. But Joseph’s world was turned upside down again and again, and he met each challenge with calm hope. And today others are doing the same.
If you want to imagine what life was like for Joseph, stop and look the next time you go to Home Depot. Those man gathered in the parking lot looking for work? They are Joseph. They have wives named Maria and children named Jesus. They are doing their best to feed them and give them shelter in a foreign land, just like another Jose did for his Maria and Jesus 2,000 years ago in Egypt.
Do we need exhaustive details about Joseph? No. We know who he was. He was the quiet father working hard, without the glory. Tradition tells us that Joseph died before Jesus began his public ministry, so Joseph never saw a single miracle or heard any teaching from Jesus.
You know, I take that back. Joseph did see miracles. Daily everyday miracles that showed him his son was someone amazing — the way he worked in Joseph’s carpenter shop or how he related to others. Joseph didn’t need to see Jesus giving sight to the blind or raising the dead. He already knew his son could do anything.
If we want to honor Joseph, we can honor the millions of Josephs we know in our midst, to honor the goodness of those around us. These honest and honorable men work hard to give their children opportunities they never had. Even if there is no room for them at the inn.
Our immigration laws deny them that chance. Today Joseph could not bring Mary and Jesus into this country, just as today my great-grandfather would be denied entry. Our immigration laws are a national disgrace. Yesterday’s shameful vote in the Senate to deny education to children of immigrants is only the most recent example of that.
But given that fact, and the fact that we here at Good Shepherd cannot change our laws, what are we to do?
We can open our hearts. We can see the Holy Family in those around us who, like Joseph, are just trying to provide for their families in a hostile environment. We can give them work, shelter and hope. And we can follow the law of God when it conflicts with the laws of men.
What can we do to honor San Jose today? How can we rise above the shrill fear and hatred of immigrants in our society today?
How can we be moved the next time we see St. Joseph in the parking lot of the Home Depot?
And like him, can we listen to what the angel is telling each of us?