But as he considered this, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
I remember the first time I saw someone pass away. It was 26 years ago, yesterday, November 25, 1997, in the early morning hours at a home in the suburbs of Boston. I was a deacon. Boston has many hospitals on one street, and people from throughout New England come there for medical treatment. Since many patients are far from their homes in Western Massachusetts or Maine, it is not expected that their home priest would make a trip to Boston to visit them. Back then, this job fell to deacons (mostly seniors) at the Seminary, who rotated a pager (remember those?) and took turns being on call to go to the hospitals to visit people who were from out of town. I don’t think it is like this anymore—there are no more pagers, and sadly there are not many deacons at the Seminary. And maybe it’s a good thing—I was 25 years old and really wet behind the ears when it came to this. Or maybe it’s good that I had the experience, sometimes it’s good to be thrown into the fire. Either way, I remember being in this house with a large family. They rotated who was with their father in the bedroom, others were in clusters in the living room. I rotated between the two rooms, really unsure of what I was doing. At some point, I remember being in the living room, and the mother looking around the corner and motioning for me to come into the bedroom. It was just she, her husband and me. It looked like he had passed away, though I had never seen anyone pass away. I had been to plenty of funerals but never had I been present (or in the next room) when someone had passed away. She said “I think he has passed.” I agreed. She wanted me to check. Did I feel for a pulse? What to do? How would we tell everyone else? What would their reaction be? All I remembered from my seminary training was that we should offer a prayer (a Trisagion) upon death. They didn’t really get into these other details. And honestly, for the first time in my life, I felt like I might actually poop in my pants. I now understood what that phrase to be scared to that degree meant, because that’s exactly how I felt.
Why was I there? Because I had followed God’s call to the priesthood. I followed that calling to the seminary and was now serving as a deacon. While deacons in Boston at that time took care of those who were sick, I had taken care of this man when he was in the hospital and I was present for his final moments. I was there because I followed God. I was there because I had obeyed. That didn’t mean the situation was going to be comfortable. It was anything but comfortable.
Upon hearing the news that their father had died, his children reacted differently. Emotions were really high. Someone hit a wall. Someone else said they were going to go out driving. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, nothing. All I knew was that we couldn’t have any more walls hit, it wasn’t a good idea for anyone to drive. And I remember saying with a raised (but not rude) voice, “Everyone get together. No one is going anywhere, everyone just take a deep breath.” I don’t know why I said these things. Yes, I was scared. No, I didn’t have much confidence. And I didn’t even know what to say. I like to think that God put those words in my mouth at that moment, because everyone did just what I had asked. Everyone came together and took a deep breath. That seemed to relax everyone. And then what needed to be done became more clear—call hospice, and once they came, call a funeral home. Somewhere in there we said a prayer. I remember coming home just before sunrise, I had been out all night, and there was a service to do that morning with the bishop who I was serving with. And somehow, I got through that as well. There was even a service that night in some other parish and I got through that.
I’m sharing this because this was one of the most profound moment where obedience and trust were rewarded. I obeyed and found myself in the situation I was in. And God put the right thoughts in my head, lifted the cloud of doubt and uncertainty, and I got through. Was it polished? No. Was it confident? Not that night. But it was sincere. I’ve had many nights like this one in the ensuing years I have served and I feel polished and confident around these situations, even though there still is a healthy fear and respect for what I’m doing.
I share this story because it actually happens to all of us, probably several times in life. Think about a teacher walking into a classroom on his or her own for the very first time, or the doctor performing his or her own first surgery. Think about something joyful like getting married, but making a decision to spend the rest of your life with someone. Or the first time you hold a child and realize that you can’t give it to someone when you get tired. Just about everything we try for the first time has a healthy dose of fear and doubt.
This week, we introduce the story of Joseph. He was put in an unbelievable position in every sense of the word. Who would believe that his betrothed was with child, and it was not the result of either fornication or adultery, two things that would have brought the death penalty back then, specifically death by stoning. Who would believe that this child would be conceived by the Holy Spirit? How would Joseph have not only the faith and trust in God, but the words to explain or even converse with Mary, or with even his own thoughts? We know that God’s grace fills empty spaces, it completes what we lack.
God spoke to Joseph through an angel. God speaks to us sometimes through other people, sometimes through our own thoughts, and sometimes even through angels, His messengers that send thoughts through others and through our own minds. Joseph was obedient to his calling, and in his obedience, he experienced grace, help and eventually confidence in fulfilling what God had called him to do.
Grace, help and confidence all have their roots in obedience, putting oneself out there to follow whatever God has called us to do, whether it be mundane or extraordinary, whether we’ve done it before or have never conceived of doing it.
Thus did Joseph speak to the Virgin, “Mary, what is this I see in you? I cannot understand it, and I am amazed, and my mind is struck with dismay. Therefore get out of my sight quickly. Mary, what is this I see in you? You have brought me shame and sorrow instead of honor and joy; and instead of praise, you have brought me reproach. I cannot bear to be rebuked by the people. When I received you from the priests at the Temple, you were an innocent girl, consecrated to the Lord. So what is this that I see in you now?” Idiomelon, Doxastikon, first hour, tone plagal 4)
Personal Reflection Point: Have you ever had a dream about an angel of the Lord?