Saturday, December 22, 2007

Random Thoughts on the Way to Becoming a Sermon...

Joseph. The carpenter. The spouse of Mary. Jesus' earthly father. Him.

The Lectionary reading is about him this week, and I like that. I'm all about the ones who get overlooked, who no one notices, or really thinks about. And Joseph is one of those.

It must have been difficult for him--in his society, pregnancy before marriage just didn't happen--especially if the baby wasn't her fiance's. He had no idea what was going on, but it didn't happen in "decent families" and so he decided not to marry her after all. Now, I'm not sure, on one level, that he was being truly "righteous" when he decided not to marry her after all but not to make a stink about it. But then, we don't know what conversations Mary and Joseph had about it--if any.

Mary: "Look, I know this isn't the done thing. But it was the Spirit of God."
Joseph: (Incredulous) "Sure it was."

Another of those instances where we know the story so well we don't see these twists in it. "Speed bumps," one of my Biblical Studies profs used to call them.

I mean, how would you react if your significant other/daughter/sister said she was pregnant by God? Indeed--a quick trip to the psychologist.

At any rate, Joseph had made his decision. And then he had a dream. Someone in the RevGals lectionary discussion on Tuesday drew the connection between this Joseph and his ancestor Joseph, the dreamer of dreams in Egypt.

So he changes his mind, based on a dream (which doesn't make much more sense than what Mary might have told him), and does something very radical. He accepts Mary's scandalous pregnancy, even if the facts have been kept fairly quiet within the family so that all the village doesn't know, and marries her.

I wonder what went through his mind--was he simply resigned, quietly resentful at God putting this task on him, awed and reverent at the honour, uncertain but willing to step out in faith? I wonder if this drew him closer to Mary, as he understood better what it must have felt like, to be called to a task that was difficult, an honour, bound to cause trouble for you in your culture, a blessing...all those things.

I'd like to think it did strengthen their bond, this common call to bear and raise God's child, to stand in the face of derision or skepticism from their families and friends. It's easy to forget that these were real people, not creche figures or cardboard characters.

It's a tough job to be a parent in any case--and how much more difficult when your child is born under, shall we say, unusual circumstances (whether premature, from artificial insemination, adopted--or the child of the Most High). I'm sure there were times when either or both Mary and Joseph resented this task, and times when they were overjoyed with the child.

My last question about Joseph has always been, "What happened to him?" The traditional answer is that he died before Jesus began his ministry. It makes sense--there's mention of Mary and Jesus' siblings but not Joseph. And I find it difficult to believe that a man who could accept that his fiancee was pregnant by the Holy Spirit would be unable to accept the child of that pregnancy becoming an itinerant rabbi. The two things go together. So Joseph never saw the most earth-shattering parts of Jesus' life, even though Joseph had prepared Jesus for them.

Now, in a certain sense, I can see another purpose for Joseph and his dreams. The goal, for the gospel writer, was to show that Jesus was the child of God, not the child of Joseph. So not only did Mary have a vision, but Joseph had a dream, and both had the same result--they accepted the child and were married. So Jesus was clearly the child of God, but at the same time, was legitimate, in the terms understood in his time and place.

I like Joseph. In the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC is a statue of Joseph. It's in a side chapel, the one usually used as a Lady Chapel in Roman Catholic churches, dedicated to Mary. Well, the whole church is dedicated to Mary in this case, so it only seems fair somehow that Joseph gets a chapel. At any rate, the statue really caught my eye. Joseph cradles a toddler-age Jesus in his arms, as the child looks up at him happily. We know it's Joseph and not St. Christopher (who's also often shown carry Jesus, since that's what his name means and his whole claim to fame)--there are carpentry tools at Joseph's feet. I like the statue because it shows a nuturing, caring Joseph. So often Joseph is depicted in such marginal roles as leading the donkey, holding a lantern in the stable, or, later in Jesus' life, teaching him carpentry. All needed nad useful, but really something that could have been done by almost anyone; or else hardly surprising. But this tender Joseph is wonderful. I couldn't find any information on it when I went looking on the internet, unfortunately, but I remember it very clearly from a visit only four years ago.

Joseph. He willingly, if reluctantly, took on an enormous task that was bound to cause him trouble, on the basis of a dream.

Do we listen to our dreams? We may not have angels visiting us every night, but we do feel those calls, those commands, the voice of an angel speaking to us in the darkness of our nights, when we lie awake wondering what to do or how to do it or why we should. Listen to those angels. Joseph did.


Sue said...

Wow. This is amazing! I love the image of angels coming to all of us in the cover of night. So true...

Barbara said...

Yes, I like your observations about Joseph. Got the makings of a good sermon there.
I happen to believe in listening to our dreams. Perhaps they are as you say, angels whispering to us.

Rev. Sharon said...

This is just beautiful!! Joseph is one of my favourite people in Scripture, and it really cranks my shorts that he gets such glancing acknowledgment! Thank you for your insightful words! I think I need to drive back into DC one of these days and see that chapel. I have a dim recollection of it, and I only live 60 miles away... Thanks!

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...