The theme of this homily could be summarized as,
“Closed Heart, Open Heart.”
In the first reading, we have a closed heart, in King Ahaz.
The background is this: his country is in deep trouble,
and he has set his mind on a course
that Isaiah has come to talk him out of.
That’s why Isaiah offers to give him a sign – any sign he chooses.
But Ahaz refuses. A closed heart.
But Joseph, in the Gospel, has an open heart.
Joseph has just found out something that is shocking:
Mary, his wife-to-be, is expecting a child!
Now, Joseph knew when he became engaged to Mary,
that she had taken a vow of virginity.
Their marriage was going to be different in that regard.
Joseph was probably older, and it may be
he was doing so as a way to provide her protection and security.
So when he heard about Mary being pregnant,
Lots of things might have gone through his head.
Hurt, betrayal, anger.
Now, the question is, how do we have an open heart,
rather than a closed one? And I’d suggest three things:
First, set aside anger and hurt. You may feel it, but move beyond it.
Second, fight the temptation to make rash judgments.
For me, when I find myself playing that script in my head,
trying to fill in all the blanks, I turn to some other project.
Or, I start praying. It may take a while, but that helps.
Third, remind yourself – hourly, if necessary! –
that God is in control, and you aren’t.
Let me say more about anger.
This is something a lot of people struggle with,
ranging from the little irritations and sharp words,
all the way to really explosive anger.
Let me suggest two major causes of anger –
not the only ones, but two major ones.
First, we get angry when we feel we’re under attack.
Think about how we respond if someone attacks us physically:
the instinct is to defend ourselves, and, with a surge of adrenalin,
we may suddenly strike back.
Something similar happens when someone
is criticizing an idea or project of ours; or kidding or mocking us.
And it also happens when the attack isn’t on me,
but on someone I care about.
The issue isn’t whether the criticism is fair or intentional;
But whether getting angry is really the best move.
Most of the time, we regret it, because we lost control.
So if that’s you, and if you want to do something about it,
here’s my suggestion.
Stop and really analyze the last few times you got angry.
Look and see if it wasn’t a case of feeling attacked in some way.
Making a habit of this kind of examination will help disconnect
that button that other people always figure out how to push.
The other major reason we get angry is because we want control,
and we don’t have it.
Think of what happens when you’re a child,
and the game doesn’t go your way; what do you do?
You might cry, throw down the cards, scatter the pieces off the board, and stomp away.
In a word: anger; and why?
Because you’re not having your way.
Now consider what dad or mom does when driving somewhere.
Someone is in the wrong lane; driving too slowly; doesn’t signal properly;
doesn’t go on green soon enough. What do they do?
Do they ever get red in the face?
Shake their fist or say not-nice things about that other driver?
Try to get around that car, just to make a nasty face?
It’s the same thing. Anger, because we can’t get our way.
And, if you think about it, it may explain a lot of the anger
that shows up between spouses, parents and children, and so forth.
So if this is you, here’s the simple answer –
simple, but not necessarily easy:
accept that the things you can control are far, far, far fewer
than you think or expect.
I say it’s not easy, because this isn’t something
you just say to yourself one time.
It’s a daily, even hourly confession: I am not in control.
There is a prayer, many of us have heard of it, and it goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
This isn’t only a prayer, it’s a way of life.
And I think Joseph must have understood it,
because he was serene in the face of things he didn’t control,
and that helped his heart be open
to the message of the angel who came to him.
Behind this prayer – and behind Joseph’s whole story –
is another saying you’ve heard: There is a God – and I’m not him.
Recognizing, and trusting, that God is in control
helped Joseph keep his gaze steady and his heart open,
and the same is true for us.
Now, if you’re still with me on all this,
and you would like to see these things happen in your life,
then I have one more suggestion: Go to confession!
And I don’t mean, go once.
I mean, if you aren’t in the habit of coming pretty regularly,
make the decision that you will form a habit of coming to confession.
How often is up to you, but a good rule of thumb is once a month.
And if you’re wrestling with some bad habits,
you may need to come more than that in order to break them.
Some people are skeptical of this, and maybe that’s you,
and you aren’t going to do it unless I can convince you.
And I could spend the next few minutes offering several reasons.
But I want to wrap this up. So let me say it this way.
If you asked me, how often should a field be plowed and fertilized,
not being a farmer, I don’t really know.
So I would call some of the farmers here, and ask them.
And since this is what they do, I’d believe them.
Well, as a priest, confession and conversion are things I do know about.
And I’m telling you, if you don’t turn over the soil of your heart
often enough in the sacrament of confession,
your heart will be like soil in the ground that doesn’t get tilled:
hard and resistant to change.
But with regular confession,
our heart becomes better ground for God’s word to grow,
and grow well.
Going to confession isn’t the only thing we need
in order to have open, receptive hearts –
there are other steps needed as well –
but it’s hard to get anything happening without regular confession.
This week, in preparation for Christmas,
we’ll have extra confessions on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings,
as well as on Thursday and Saturday at the usual times.
And then, after Christmas,
we’ll still be having confessions every week,
so we can keep tilling our hearts,
and let the word of God take deep root.