A Passive New Year

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:18“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

St. Matthew’s account paints a portrait of two men, two powerful influences on Jesus at a time in which he was most fragile, exposed to the world, and helpless. The one sought to destroy the Lord even before he could begin his life, while the other protected him, ensuring that he would complete the mission of his adulthood.

These two influences could hardly be more different. Even as Herod actively plots and strategizes to rid himself of a potential rival to his throne, Joseph seems to do little more than go about his ordinary business. His actions—taking Jesus and his mother to Egypt and back—are not the result of cunning plans, but rather an obedient, almost automatic response to the command of God at the level of his dreams. It’s hard to imagine a starker contrast: the intense restless energy of Herod—seeking, inquiring, attacking—versus quiet passivity of Joseph who seems to literally sleepwalk his way through everything…

We hear of no anxiety from Joseph; he hears the voice of God, and obeys. And in between those disruptive times of movement to and from Egypt, we imagine peaceful days with their usual round of mundane events and routines. By contrast, Herod is consumed with paranoia, a quality that characterized his entire life, as many contemporary historians have noted. The attack on the region of Bethlehem, the massacre of innocent children, are more than the actions of a monster; they point to something deeper in his soul: the profound fear of someone who believes he is alone in a godless universe. And because he is alone, he alone is responsible for securing his own immortality by whatever means necessary…

We might suppose that a man so desperate and driven could hardly fail to accomplish his ends. And yet, in the end, it is the submissive Joseph who triumphs, preserving the Life of All in his care, while the aggression of Herod produces horrific violence and ends in the futility of his own death. The weak overcomes the strong; the worldly foolish confounds the worldly wise; the Nobody brings the Somebody to nothing—once again, the paradox of the Christian Gospel plays itself out in the account of Jesus’ earliest days.

What does this mean for us? As we stand on the cusp of the new civic year of 2018, anticipating unknown events to come, unexpected developments, pleasant or painful events, new circumstances that may change the course of our lives, the Gospel account offers us a choice between the attitude of Herod and the attitude of Joseph.

On one hand, we may choose the attitude of Herod, the attitude that says in its heart that there is no God, that we are alone to shape our own destinies as we see fit. In this attitude, driven by a deep existential fear, we divide the world into allies or rivals, those who help us and those who hinder us (or else are just plain indifferent to us), those who threaten us and those who reward us. In this attitude, we go forward into the New Year looking over our shoulders at every step, terrified of what may happen next, ready to defend ourselves in a hostile world. We may even contemplate a pre-emptive strike against perceived enemies… Whatever the case, if we adopt Herord’s attitude—which is, by the way, the default of most human beings—then the coming year cannot help but be a source of profound anxiety for us.

On the other hand, we may choose another attitude, the attitude of Joseph. As ‘pathetic’ as it may be in a worldly sense, Joseph’s quiet yielding to the voice of God, his deep passivity in the face of divine command, is ultimately the only attitude that will ensure our peace and joy throughout the coming year. This attitude steadfastly refuses to plot and plan beyond what the moment absolutely requires. When circumstances dictate that we must act in the immediate future, we do our best (through prayer, consultation with our elders, and due diligence) to make the right choice. But other than that, we just live, doing the ordinary, simple things, allowing each day, each hour, each moment to happen to us, taking it as it is, not as we would have it. In this attitude, we allow ourselves to be carried through time, even as we strive to be open at the deepest level of our consciousness to allow the voice of God to move us.

If we adopt the attitude of Joseph, we have nothing to fear in being so passive. As long as God is with us in all the ways that the Church provides (particularly our regular rule of prayer, and the Eucharist whenever it is offered), we will be subject not to the dictates of random chance events and circumstances, but to the divine providence that orders the world. We are passive, but not in a futile way, driven here and there, but rather yielding to the greater activity of God who transforms the worst of circumstances into good.

As we step into 2018, our own fallen inertia will compel us to a Herodian division of our neighbours into rivals and allies. It will try to inspire us to live and act out of fear and mistrust. If we make one resolution for the New Year, then, it must be this: to consciously turn aside from Herod’s way of fear, and embrace the trust of Joseph, who tells us that as long as we cling to ‘God with us,’ we will always remain serene and joyful in this age, and ultimately, we will be triumphant as we enter the age to come.


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