In 1964 Nelson Mandela was sent to prison for conspiring to fight the Apartheid government.  At some point in the next 27 years of captivity he “had a dream” of sorts.  When he was released it would have been entirely righteous of him to continue the violent struggle – nobody would have blamed him.  But somehow in prison he encountered unimaginable mystery that moved him to toward reconciliation, forgiveness and love.  There was no roadmap for what he proposed for his country.

In our gospel today Joseph encounters in Mary’s pregnancy an unimaginable mystery.  Nobody would have blamed him for exiting stage right.  The decision he faced had no precedent.  Yet he chooses to go with unimaginable mystery when it has no support in his pious and righteous world.  Matthew obviously feels Joseph’s example is key to the evolution of his own faith community and our own.  Let’s see if we can figure out why.

A Tough Decision

Imagine with me that we are a fly on the wall the day Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant.  Even though they are not yet living together they are legally married at this time.  This pregnancy has the potential to bring enormous embarrassment and loss of honor to both families.  Let’s imagine Joseph seeks out the village elder for some confidential advice on what to do.  The elder calmly tells Joseph he has three options.  Let’s listen in: “1) Joseph, the only way you can protect your reputation and that of your family is to publically accuse Mary of adultery and if she is convicted, which seems likely, she could be stoned or sent far away.  Problem solved.  2) You can quietly divorce Mary and hope nobody else brings charges.  The chance of rumor and loss of honor for you and your family would remain forever; or 3) marry her quickly and live with the risk of ridicule and further exposure forever as well as the risk that the real father will show up one day.”

Joseph is then confronted with an unimaginable mystery, a revelation in a dream that has absolutely no framework in his pious and righteous world.   He decides to Go With It.  Matthew’s community of Jewish believers living decades later could identify with Joseph: how do they integrate Jesus into their pious Jewish framework?  Embracing Jesus for them was risky at worst and awkward at best regarding their family and community.  Matthew’s message to them is don’t be afraid – Go With It.

Don’t we all face moments in life when mystery assaults our righteous and stable world?  We cannot evolve as individuals or as a human community unless we, like Joseph, take a risk and trust mystery.  Last century a few astrologists looked at new data that changed everything – they risked ridicule in concluding the universe is not static after all, it is not a giant clock operating under timeless rules.  Rather the universe is still expanding and creation is still happening.  A computer company risked its very existence on the unimaginable idea that merely touching a screen could run a computer.  Racial equality, gay rights, etc., were at one time unimaginable mysteries.  A community in the Catholic tradition where authority comes from the bottom up rather than the top down, and where women are equal, was once an unimaginable mystery.

How Many Edges?

Life offered Nelson Mandela and Joseph an edge to embrace and on which to evolve.  This text, this season, challenges us to find and embrace the edges in our lives so we too may evolve and create.  In a recent TED talk, the poet David Wyhte talks about a frontier where we embrace the edges in our lives.  He uses the following poem to frame the problem:

Why are you unhappy?

Why are you unhappy?

Because 98.98% of what you do,

And everything you say,

Is for yourself,

And there isn’t one.

His point is that we need to find the edge where we are in conversation with something other than ourselves!  In losing ourselves on the edge we, of course, find a new evolved self.

Life does not offer most of an edge that effects salvation history (like Joseph) or an edge that effects the destiny of a nation (like Mandela).  But life offers us edges every day.  Every time we readjust our lens and see the people in our life as unimaginable mystery, we are on an edge.  Every time we engage in conversation with full intention, we are on an edge.  Every time we love someone who cannot or will not love us back, we run into something other than ourselves.  Every time we forgive we extend an edge into the world.

I hope and pray that this text can be like Joseph’s dream for us – telling us not to be afraid and to choose unimaginable mystery, telling us to live in the frontier where we are on an edge in conversation with something other than ourselves, telling us to risk evolving into someone new.


George von Stamwitz


Homily – Evolving on the Edges

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Advent

Saturday Evening, December 21, 2013

Focus text: Matthew 1:18-24 (Joseph’s tough decision)


Photo by Ted Eytan on