For many winters, I have been taking grade nine students downtown on special missions – to share friendship, food and winter supplies with some of the loneliest, neediest, invisible and marginalized individuals in the city, the homeless who roamed the busy streets of Toronto every single day; rain (snow) or shine. We would begin our journey at Nathan Phillip Square and continue eastbound along Queen Street all the way to the Good Shepherd Mission just east of Parliament Street. The city-scapes quickly shift from the surreal, glamourous shopping district around Yonge and Queen to the shabby reality for so many living in a big city. Along the way, we would visit three to four homeless shelters, and various parks and street corners frequented by many homeless individuals. Before the trip, most students would feel apprehensive, to say the least! To these young people who spend most of their time in Scarborough, a journey to downtown Toronto is challenging enough. Many admitted that they were afraid.
“What are your fears?” I asked.
“Well, everything! Where is Parliament Street? Is it dangerous? Are they [the home-less] scary? Are they violent? They must be really dirty and smelly!”
The students’ fears are not unfounded; however, when one delves deeper into the heart of the situation, they would discover that homelessness is not a choice for the majority but forced due to domestic violence, addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.), and mental health issues. Through their interactions with the less fortunate, participants are gifted with a glimpse of the real humanity buried under layers of grime and dirt; grinded down by poverty, illnesses, and pervasive stereotypes. Therefore, this venture challenges participants to not only reexamine their personal biases and expectations, but also to open their hearts to new (and sometimes strange) encounters that may result in a complete turn-around of their hearts and minds – a conversion! They would realize that even individuals as young as themselves can accomplish great things by a simple “yes” as well as their mere presence and willingness to physically walk with and among the poor.
This week’s Gospel has offered us a poignant reflection of the intricacy between what we think we know is true and what is the truth. Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man”, has found out about Mary’s pregnancy and plans to quietly call off the marriage to preserve her dignity (Mt 1:19). In the eyes of the world, Joseph has made a noble choice. However, God has a very different plan for him, for Mary, and their child. God wants Joseph to be so much more than an ordinary father and husband; God has chosen Joseph to be a saint!
At the pivotal moment when Joseph is “resolved” to dismiss Mary, the angel appears to tell him, “do not be afraid” (Mt 1:20). What are Joseph’s fears? The scandal of marrying a woman who is already with child? Of breaking the social norms? Of what others may think of him? Of losing respect from his peers? If Joseph follows what he thinks is right and just according to the social and religious expectations of his time, then he would have missed out on the greatest gift of his life! Perhaps moved by the Spirit, Joseph has a complete change of heart - a conversion of sorts - together with Mary, he has become a participant in God’s salvific plan. God calls Jo-seph to be a “saint”; not a superhero. Joseph is to fulfill his call through the most ordinary means - being a husband and father. In this story, we see two ordinary individuals who have accomplished the most extraordinary mission: they help ushering into the world, Emmanuel, God is with us, with a simple “yes”!
Just as God has a plan for Mary, for Joseph, and for His only Son; God also has a plan for each one of us. St. Paul tells the Romans that they are “called to belong to Jesus Christ and [...] to be saints” (Rm 1:6-7). Each one of us, too, is called to “belong” and “to be saints” (Ibid). With humility and trust, we can accomplish the most extraordinary mission with the most ordinary means.