Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Watching with Joseph

This being Year A in the lectionary, Joseph, the father of Our Lord, makes some of his rare appearances in the readings. Joseph is one of the more fugitive figures in scripture, making his first appearance in the first verse of Matthew (as part of the genealogy) and his last at Jesus' visit to the temple at age twelve (which we shall also be privileged to hear this year), where he is not named but may be assumed to be one of the plural parents mentioned. Then he disappears; Mary is seen in several episodes and is present at the crucifixion, but Joseph is never heard from again, and the last references to him are oblique, when Jesus is called "the carpenter's son."

It is thus presumed in the legenda that Joseph died before Jesus' ministry began, and he is typically depicted as an older man. Some tales claim that he was a widower and that therefore James and the other brothers and sisters were from this first marriage, thus making possible the perpetual virginity of Mary. In truth, we do not know: even the Catholic Encyclopedia deems these stories "unreliable". Nor does Joseph feature prominently in the history of saintly devotion, or for that matter much at all. Mary's cult traces back as far as we can trace anything; a true cultus of Joseph is not found until the 1300s, and took another century to really catch on; the day of his observance only dates back to the 10th century.

Traditionally, in the nativity story, we are associated with the shepherds, taken by surprise in the fields. But I have come to think that Jesus' earthly father is a better image for most of us church goers. The nativity is not, after all, a surprise to us; but we are both participants and bystanders. Here is Joseph, who finds out about the blissful event first through rumor and then through a dream; and now here he is towing his far-too-wife down to Bethlehem, and arranging lodging in what space is to be had. And now the holy night arrives, and it is all too likely that he is, at first, reduced to standing in the street (or nursing an anxious beer in the tap room) while a midwife handles the sacred birth. (Saint Bridget's account may be safely set aside as devotional.) Attending the mother and newborn, he must also deal with the surprise visitors from the fields, a duty repeated when the magi make their visit. And then must take the family to Egypt, and thence, finally, back to Nazareth. Presumably also accompanies the mother and child and the various ritual visits to the temple.

And that is all. Simeon receives the promised vision, but Joseph leaves the story when it is quite incomplete. And is it not so with us? Our own stories are writ and each such book closed, but though we pray "maranatha, come Lord," it has become clear over the years that the divine "soon" is in a great fullness of time, which none of those living is perhaps destined to see, for glory or grief, until the day comes when all graves yield and holy judgement, dread in mercy, is worked to its conclusion. We are as often the bystanders, witnesses to grace, as we are the grace-bearers (the charitokos, as it were) or even midwives; and often enough we do not see the end of grace as it is worked out. And yet these are honorable and saintly roles. The cultus of the Holy Family is deserving of our consideration, for Jesus was as much in need of a father as of a mother.

Therefore let us wait with Joseph for the sacred birth, and worship with him the holy child. And let us receive with him the visit of the shepherds, and marvel at the wonder of the incarnation, even if we, like him, sleep before the last glorious morn, laid to rest in the promise and hope of that day's fulfillment.

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