They say, “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.”
I’ve been looking around this week for the original source of that quote. I can’t find a definitive answer. Some say it was from a comedian like Woody Allen or Lily Tomlin. Others chalk it up to an old Yiddish proverb: “We plan; God laughs.”
Personally, I like to imagine that it comes from St. Joseph the Worker, husband to the Blessed Virgin Mary and guardian of the child Jesus. Even if he did not utter these exact words himself, I think he would certainly smile and nod his head at their meaning. He knows, better than most, what it means to have one’s plans interrupted by God.
Today’s gospel is all about being interrupted.
It opens with Mary and Joe, a nice Jewish couple about to begin their life together as husband and wife. Then, all of a sudden, their plans are interrupted with the news that Mary was going to have a baby.
This was a big deal. Not only is having a first child a huge moment for any couple, but this situation was complicated by the fact that Mary and Joe were not yet officially married. Even worse, Joe was certain that he was not the father.
This was heartbreaking news. All of his plans for the future were suddenly thrown up into the air. In most cultures, a scenario like this would almost certainly be the subject of town gossip, but in first century Palestine, it was also a death sentence. Joseph could legally have Mary tried and executed, but he opts for a more gentle approach instead. He decides to resolve the matter quietly by breaking off the engagement and moving on with his life. All in all, it was the honorable thing to do for a man both fair and kind in the midst of a crisis.
That’s when God interrupts Joe’s story.
As Matthew tells it, an angel visited him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid because everything was happening as part of God’s plan. Joe, remarkably, listens to this dream and the wedding is still on, despite the public ridicule he would doubtless receive from friends and relations.
It takes a special kind of faith to be that open to God’s interruption in one’s life. We humans are creatures of routine and ritual. We like things done the same way every time. When things don’t go according to plan, we have a tendency to get frustrated. We don’t like being interrupted.
This tendency of ours is especially apparent when it comes to matters of faith and morality. We want to believe that God is unchanging. We like the comfort of knowing that what’s right is right and what’s true is true, for all time and forever. We depend on our religious institutions to always stay the same, meeting in the same place, singing the same songs, and telling the same stories, from cradle to grave, and continuing long after we are gone.
So, what are we to do then with stories like this one, when God interrupts, not only one family’s personal expectations, but also their foundational sense of right and wrong? Why would God, in bringing Christ the Son into the world, expose the Holy Family to danger and disgrace, and even violate the boundaries established by divine law in the Torah?
In that sense, our familiar Christmas story is profoundly disturbing. But in another sense, it is deeply comforting for all of us whose lives rarely go according to plan and often fail to live up to our most deeply held values.
The first thing this story tells us is that God is able to work with people whose lives are less than perfect.
The second (and more important) lesson this story tells us is that sometimes those imperfections and interruptions are the very things that God can use to bring good into the world. Sometimes, the interruption is the main point with God.
Whether it’s an unexpected pregnancy, a medical diagnosis, a lost job, a broken relationship, a personal failure, a missed opportunity, or any other unfortunate event, all of it is material that God is using to bring forth new life and freedom into the world.
That was the story for Mary and Joe and their unexpected pregnancy. The miracle born of their less-than-perfect circumstance was no less than Jesus Christ himself.
In the same way, I believe that Christ is being born into the world through each and every one of us, each day.
You might be tempted to look at your life, with all its imperfections and interruptions, as wasted time and space. But I would invite you, challenge you, dare you even, as we move from Advent into the Christmas season, to look at your life with the eyes of faith. God is doing something wonderful with your life. Christ is being born into the world again today, even through you.
God’s will for your life is for you to see the image of Christ in yourself and those around you. No person or situation is so bad that God can’t work with it. And God, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, causes “all things [to] work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
This is the good news of Christmas: that God enters into this broken world, as it is, through us, as one of us, and brings good out of it for God’s own glory and praise.
St. Matthew writes in his gospel, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Not some other way that might have seemed more ideal, but “in this way.”
This is how God worked through Mary and Joe in their less-than-perfect situation and it is how God is working in you and through you, no matter how bad your life might seem today.