A workman injured his thumb on the job so the foreman told him to go to the nearby clinic. He did, and stepped inside and found an empty room with two doors : one marked "illness" and the other marked "injury." He thought to himself: "Well, I'm not sick; I just hurt my thumb," so he walked through the door marked "injury." He found himself in a second room again with two doors, one marked "internal," the other marked "external." "It's my thumb, not something inside me," he said to himself. So he walked through the door marked "external" where yet another room faced him : this time the doors were marked "therapy" and "treatment." "Well, he thought to himself," "I don't need therapy or counseling; it's only my thumb." So he walked through the "treatment" door into still another empty room with two more doors marked "major" and "minor." "This isn't a major problem," he had to admit to himself. "I just hurt my thumb." So he walked through the door marked "minor" and found himself standing on the street outside the clinic. Shaking his head, he went back to his job where the foreman asked, "Did they help you?" "I'm not sure," the workman replied. "But I'll tell you one thing for sure: that's the damn best organized clinic I've ever seen!"
We humans crave order, stability and predictability in our lives; that's why so many of us spend so much time and effort trying to organize our lives. Lack of order can surprise and scare us. There was a time not so long ago when we thought scientists would soon be able to predict and control just about everything : from weather patterns to stock market cycles. But we've learned that life is more complicated than we originally thought. We now know that rules or procedures, no matter how carefully drafted, will never suffice for all occasions. It's our destiny as human beings to live with surprises; unanticipated events await us around every corner. How do we respond? Today's Gospel gives us a clue:
Joseph is betrothed to Mary, a beautiful young woman who is living with her parents until he can raise the dowry. She drops by his carpenter shop. His face brightens when he first sees his lovely bride-to-be; but then she "drops the bomb" and tells him she is pregnant! He is devastated. She leaves crying. The hours pass and he painfully considers the matter. He knows what the rules say: denounce her to the authorities and assist in stoning her to death in front of her parents' house. (What a tragedy that would have been for us!) Yet his heart wont allow him to blindly follow that harsh rule. Perhaps he should divorce her quietly. He just doesn't know. In the middle of the night, the Spirit dwelling in him affirms the truth: "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife." Joseph listens to the Spirit and putting aside his fears and doubts, takes Mary into his house and his heart.
On that day of surprise, shock and pain, Joseph somehow was able to reach beyond the narrow, harsh, legalistic response dictated by religious authorities. But how? I believe it was the habits of his heart : the habit of prayerfulness, of graciousness and compassion, of attentiveness to God's Spirit : a Spirit who helps us see life from a deeper and fresher perspective. Out of these habits came Joseph's ability in a moment of surprise to look past the rules and expectations of society to consider the woman he loved. In doing so, he reflected God's unconditional love. He pleased God. We know there will never be an end to life's surprises; no rules or axioms will ever fully prepare you and me for the surprises to come. Only our gracious and compassionate hearts fully attuned to the Spirit within us, will enable us to do the right thing! For this we pray: Gracious God, Give us compassionate and joy-filled hearts to respond to whatever surprises we experience. Amen!