We human beings crave orderliness, stability, predictability. That's why we spend so much time trying to organize things - well, at least many of us! Its why we have traffic laws. It's why people become controlling and manipulative. We are trying to build predictability into our lives. Disorder frightens us, surprises us, frustrates us!
There was a time not long ago when we thought our scientists would learn to predict and control everything; but we've found instead that life is more complicated than we thought, that we are more complicated than we thought. Weather forecasters have educated guesses, not certitude, about weather patterns, as we well know. No rules, policies or procedures, however carefully drafted, will suffice for all occasions.
It is our destiny to live with surprises. New challenges, new opportunities await us around every bend in the road. So in the absence of any "all-purpose manual," how best should we respond to surprise? Today's Gospel gives us a clue.
The carpenter Joseph is engaged to a beautiful young woman, Mary, who is living with her parents until he can raise the necessary dowry. It's an old-world arrangement, wherein father of the bride and groom-to-be come together, make a deal and shake hands to guarantee their word. Predictable, it seems, doesn't it? But is it? Perhaps Mary drops by Joseph's carpenter shop one day. His face brightens as he sees his lovely bride-to-be. But then comes the bombshell: she tells him she's pregnant! He's devastated by the news and can't speak. She leaves crying.
As the hours pass, he ponders the matter. He knows what the law says: denounce her to the religious authorities and assist in stoning her to death right in front of her parents' house. (What a tragedy that would have been!) But even in his terrible hurt, he can't do that. Should he cancel the wedding? Distraught, he prays. Then in the night's quiet the answer comes to him: "Joseph, don't be afraid to take Mary to be your wife." He listens, reflects and with a peaceful heart, puts aside his anxieties and takes Mary into his house.
On that day of surprise and pain, there was a power that enabled Joseph to reach beyond the narrow response he had been taught by the Law. What was this power? It was the habit of his heart : a lifetime habit of graciousness and compassion. From that habit Joseph was able to look beyond the brutal punishments of the Law. He was able to act with compassion, to dismiss his fears and doubts, and focus on Mary and her needs. In doing so, he was true to his human nature as an image of God. Can we do the same? Will we do the same?
There will never be an ending to life's surprises and unpredictability. No owners' manual or easy answers can ever prepare us fully for what we face. Only graciousness and compassion can do that. So with bowed heads we pray: O God, give us compassionate hearts to travel our earth journey so that when the journey ends, as it must, we discover that our hearts have blended into one with Your heart. We ask this favor in Jesus' name. AMEN!