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George, Clarence and Joseph.
“I knew if I were drowning, you’d try to save me. And you see, you did."
Hey, it’s almost Christmas, one more week. I gave myself the gift of watching It’s A Wonderful Life again. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, an extraordinarily decent, caring human being who is also a good son, brother, husband, father, friend and business owner. Time after time he chooses to focus on the needs of others before he thinks of himself.
As a little boy, he risks his life to save his brother from drowning in an icy lake, and he endures a beating from his distraught employer, the pharmacist Mr Gower, when he stops him from accidentally poisoning a customer with the wrong medicine. Later in the movie, when his father dies, he forgoes his dream of world travel and takes over his father’s humble savings and loan business because the people of the town are so dependent on it. Then he abandons his dream of college and so that his brother can go instead. And when it looks like he is going to lose the bank itself because of his old uncle’s mistake, he considers jumping into the river on a freezing Christmas Eve because his life insurance will save his family from financial ruin.
Time after time he puts aside his desires and wishes so that someone else can have what they need. The key scene in the movie that reveals what a good man he is happens when he is standing on the bridge, about to jump in. Clarence, his guardian angel, jumps in first because, as he explains afterwards, “I knew if I were drowning, you’d try to save me. And you see, you did. And that’s how I saved you.” George jumps into an icy river for a stranger, once again putting aside his own desperate situation. He is a good, good man.
At the end of the movie, I had my usually watery eyes, and the feeling once again that the Christmas story is about the actions of people like George Bailey. In fact, Christmas wouldn’t be at all if not for the choices of two main characters. There is the mother, of course, who accepts this joy and burden of a virgin pregnancy. But it’s the father that I was thinking about at the end of the movie. His name isn’t George. It’s Joseph, and he is a good, good man.
I’ve had three important Josephs in my life.
My father’s poor immigrant parents were from Hungary, and they gave him the name Joseph, calling him by the Hungarian version of the name, Jozsi (YO-zhee) which I think is like Joey. My childless uncle Jimmy asked if I could be named after him, and my father (and mother) agreed. I received Joseph as my middle name, which I usually only heard when my mother was scolding me, “James Joseph!”
My mother had a brother named Joseph--my uncle Joe--who was a grade school teacher in New York City for about 40 years. In later years I became a kind of surrogate son to him, and he was probably my favorite uncle.
My third Joseph was my cousin, and we were constant companions throughout my growing years, sharing many adventures and misadventures all over the city.
All three Josephs in my life were good men. They were not as good as St. Joseph (although my uncle’s wife always called him that), or even as good as George Bailey (who is, after all, a fictional character). And anyway, it’s hard to be objective about people so close to you in your life. To be honest, I had a challenging relationship with my father, and he had a terrible temper and did not always treat my mother well. My Uncle Joe wasn’t always perfect with respect to the way he interacted with his brothers and sisters, and Cousin Joe could sometimes be selfish when it came to his time or his own interests. But I have to admit that I was often the recipient of their generosity of heart.
Their namesake, was much more, of course. He was a saint, and of course he was the father who raised Jesus as his son. And being a filmmaker and lover of movies, it helps me to think of him as, well, George Bailey.
Which brings me to the Gospel. It was precisely the wrong time and place when a little baby came wandering into Joseph's life. He was only engaged to the young, gentle woman named Mary and had not been with her at all when her pregnancy was revealed. He had every right to object and walk away from her, no reason to tolerate scandal for which he was not responsible. But Joseph was a good good man see, and Joseph had, I'm sure, a love of the broken world in which he lived--must have, because the Gospel tells us that he was unwilling to bring embarrassment upon Mary. Only someone like Joseph, witha heart full of compassion and love, is able to hear an angel's explanation and plea in the night, only someone like Joseph (or maybe a George Bailey) would dare accept the inconvenience and worse--the scandal-- to cooperate in the birth of one whose life would be more scandalous than any could imagine.
It’s fun to imagine what Joseph was like with his son Jesus. All those years of teaching him—not only about how to shape a good piece of wood or construct a chair or build a barn---but how to be a good man. How to listen to the hearts of others, how to be selfless--responding to the needs of your family and friends over your own, how to be committed, how to be strong. How to love as God would have you love. When Jesus got into a scuffle with his friends, did he turn to Joseph to learn how to be forgiving? When he was older, did Joseph help him understand how a real man respects and loves a woman? All the hours Jesus must have spent at Joseph’s side, watching his every action, observing his gentleness with Mary, seeing how he interacted with people in his life.
Like all of us, much of what Jesus became was the result of Joseph, and of course his mother as well. They were two peas in a pod, that Mary and her husband Joseph. Both responded immediately and generously to an interior invitation from God to participate in something wild and unpredictable. I’m sure there were other voices who counseled them to run away from their situations. I’m pretty sure that would have been my advice. But neither did.
On my way to a dinner the other night, I stopped at a shopping center to pick up a bottle of wine for my hosts. As I was waiting in line at the checkout counter, I was thinking about people (other than George Bailey) who remind me of St Joseph. Maybe Pope Francis. I mean, imagine him retired at the age of 76, his body and his mind shifting into relax mode after a lifetime of backbreaking service to others. He gets this wild and unpredictable invitation to take on the biggest burden imaginable. The gentle man shrugs his shoulders upon hearing the news: OK, yes. Remember how he looked on the balcony standing there that first night, his humility exposed before millions watching in the square and on screens around the world?
Or how about Martin Luther King Jr, lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, his lifeblood draining out of his body, his eyes still on the prize of nonviolent victory over hatred and bigotry? Or Mother Teresa, her frail body bending down to comfort a discarded street person in the last moments of his life? Or Oskar Schindler, risking his life to save thousands of Jews from the evil of the holocaust? Or Nelson Mandela, who after being jailed for 27 years for advocating for freedom in South Africa, forgave his torturers and all his opponents when he assumed the presidency of his country? Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, and so many others remind me of the loving, forgiving, humble heart of the good good St Joseph. All of them were trying as hard as they could to accept the invitation to accommodate the arrival of God with us, Emanuel.
But the invitation isn’t extended to just those great ones. It comes to us as well.
Out in the parking lot of the shopping center, my wine in hand, I realized that I was going to be late to the party. This was not good. My hosts were real sticklers about tardiness. As I was about to get into my car, a little kid came up to me out of nowhere. “Mister”, he said. “What?”, I said, just a little too abruptly, and I regretted it immediately. I thought he was trying to sell something to me, candy, whatever, like kids do from school. But I took another look at him and realized he was too young for that. And then, he started to cry. The giant parking lot was mobbed, and all around us cars were lined up, trolling for empty spaces. I bent down and tried to ask him what was the matter, but it was hard to understand him through his sobs. At one point, he cried so loud, I thought the people in the cars would think I was doing something to him. Finally I understood his problem. He had lost his family in the parking lot, didn’t know where the car was, and he thought that they had left him behind.
I looked around, searching for someone I could get to take care of this problem, but everyone was rushing around taking care of their own problems, or at least, their shopping problems. His name was Daniel, I got that out of him, and for a few minutes, I hoisted Daniel up on my shoulders so he could see and be seen, as we both walked up and down the parking lot aisles for his parents car. Daniel called out to his mother and father, hoping that they would hear him. It suddenly occurred to me that this was not a good picture, me walking around with someone else’s kid, and I got a little scared. I decided I needed to take him inside to the main store there and find security or someone in authority. When we got inside, we found our way to the security office, and Daniel went running over to his parents, who were already there. They were practically in tears too.
I left the shopping center, racing to my dinner hosts, rehearsing in the car the explanation for my tardiness. My hosts were OK about it. I mean, they didn’t want to ruin the holiday invitation that they had extended to me, but I could tell they were judging me a bit. And maybe they didn’t buy my story
But that was OK to me. It was a good thing I did, I said to myself. And it was kind of a George Bailey moment. Things like this come your way at the most unexpected, inconvenient moments, and they invite you to get your priorities straight. How else, but for the courage, faith and generosity of Joseph and Mary, would the babe have made his way into the world? They had their priorities straight, and for that we gratefully honor their example. To St Joseph, especially, this day, we say thank you!