Life is what happens to you:
A Reflection on Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25

by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador

The angel of the Lord said to Joseph, “Do not fear…” (Matthew. 1:20)

My grandmother was a very special woman. For one thing, she was the one who primarily nourished my Christian faith early on, and it was she who encouraged my sense of call to the priesthood. I miss her quite a lot now that she is no longer with us, having been born, I pray, to eternal life, twenty years ago. One of my very fond memories of my grandmother include those times I spent with her when she would often regale me with stories, sometimes of her life. One day, she shared with me that when she was young, she felt called to the cloister. At an early age, she had it all figured out that she would serve God as a nun hidden from the world in some monastery. Or, so she thought. But then she said that God had other plans for her after all, meaning my grandfather came along and she fell head over heels in love with him, they got married, had kids and grandkids, and stayed happily married for more than fifty years.

“Life is what happens to you when you make other plans.” So says a caption on a T-shirt. Life is what happens to you when you make other plans. Equally true, I think: “God is what happens to you when you make plans for your life.” “God is what happens to you when you make other plans.” It is true that we have a lot of power to plan and direct our lives, that we make powerful choices that affect, for better or for worse, ourselves, others and the world around us. And this could lead us to believe that we are in total control of our lives, we want to believe that we can neatly plan out our lives, and even the lives of others. But, then more often than not, life happens when we make plans…God happens in our lives when we plan out our lives, and we realize that we are ultimately not the masters of our life and destiny.

Joseph had it all figured out that he would spend the rest of his life with Mary. That is… until life happened. Rumors had it that she was pregnant and Joseph knew he had not shared the marital bed with her. “I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN!” And so he assumed that she was pregnant with a child of another man. Joseph probably felt devastated, humiliated, and betrayed. But because he was a man of great integrity and sensitivity, he tried to do the right thing not only for himself, but also for Mary. He would divorce Mary, but he would not disgrace her. Since Joseph’s culture placed a great deal of importance to the honor of a man and his family name, Joseph would be in the right to divorce her to protect his reputation and family honor. But he would not air their dirty laundry in public because it was an acceptable religious practice to kill a woman for infidelity. But Joseph probably loved her so much that he could not bear the thought of having her killed. So he figured a good way out of this mess. And he thought this would just be fine with God. Or, so he thought…that is, until God happened. Joseph probably thought that all he got in life was a broken dream. But it is in the midst of this broken dream, in this experience of betrayal that God revealed to him that what he saw in life was not all there was…that in the midst of this human mess, God invited him to rediscover a larger and true purpose for him, and through him, for the world. God invited Joseph to go beyond his immediate concerns of licking his wounded ego, and reflect on the needs of the broken and sinful world yearning for redemption. Joseph was invited to co-operate with God in his redemptive plan for this world. In so doing, Joseph discovered his true identity. In losing himself in God, he gained himself. In losing himself in God, he found himself, his true self.

I was discussing this Gospel story briefly with an acquaintance in a parish I serve before I preached on this very Gospel passage just right before Christmas, and because I was pretty hard on Joseph, Rob, my acquaintance, came to Joseph’s defense by reminding me, that “(Joseph) didn’t have all the information.” “He didn’t have all the information.” And likewise, we do not have all the information about ourselves, about our lives. And because of this, we have to remain open to the possibility that our vision and plans either do not agree, or at least, do not completely agree with God’s own plan and vision of how we are to live our lives in relationship to him, to others, to the world around us. We are even a mystery to ourselves, and only God is the key who can unlock the mystery of our lives. Only God alone knows fully the purpose of why he loved each one of us into existence in this world. To say or to live as if we fully know, as if we are the masters of our destiny and life is to close ourselves off not only from God’s own purpose for us, but also from knowing our deepest, authentic self that is still unfolding because we are, after all, God’s unfinished creation. Even if we think we’re just too old, even if what we got are broken dreams, failures and disappointments, even if we think it is too late to change, even if we think we have made a mess of life and that we are beyond redemption, the Gospel today pleads with us not to prejudge ourselves too soon because God still never ceases to call deeply within to live out an authentic life that is in the process of being discovered only in our daily walk with him. To admit, then, to ourselves that we do not have all the information gives us freedom to change our lives when God beckons us to do so in order that our lives would be in conformity with his will for us. This is what the story of Joseph teaches us. He was detached enough from his own life and his own self-will that he was able to let go of his deepest fear and need to control life so as to allow God into his heart, and there heard what God really and truly required of him. And in that openness to God, he showed himself to be a true Jew, embracing his religious tradition of tikhun olam, that is repairing the world by cooperating with God’s plan for the salvation of God’s own suffering world, even though what God seemed to require of him just seemed so impossible and outlandish.

There is a favorite phrase in the Carmelite spiritual tradition: “Vacare Deo,” being empty and free for God; our souls and hearts are to be empty enough to let God into our lives. May we follow Joseph’s self-emptying by his openness to God. And may our souls, our hearts, our own lives be like Mary’s empty and silent womb, empty and silent enough to receive the whispers of the Father’s love in his eternally begotten Word, Jesus, conceived and born in us through the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


© 2005 Noel E. Bordador

Noel E. Bordador is a queer Filipino Episcopal (Anglican) priest in the Diocese of New York.

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