by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 23, 2007
Scripture: Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25
“…And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame… — Matthew 1:19
At Christmas time we make much of Mary and everything of Jesus but little of Joseph. Joseph is after all not even the father of Jesus, merely a stand in for a father and a cover for Mary, and that is what I want to make the center of our Christmas reflection this year. Joseph was a just man, and unwilling to put Mary to shame. Imagine the ignominy of an out of wedlock pregnancy in a small village, and imagine the maturity it must take not to shame her but rather to shelter her.
I am reading a novel of Vichy France by Irene Nemirovsky entitled Suite Francaise; it is about ordinary life in France after the German invasion of 1940. The following passage occurs: ” ‘Frenchmen don’t denounce one another,’ the old woman said proudly…Lucile remembered something Lieutenant von Falk had told her in confidence: ‘the very first day we arrived,’ he’d said, ‘there was a package of anonymous letters waiting for us at Headquarters. People were accusing one another of spreading English and Gaullist propaganda, of hoarding supplies, of being spies. If we’d taken them all seriously, everyone in the region would be in prison. I had the whole lot thrown on the fire. People’s lives are not worth much and defeat arouses the worst in men. In Germany it was exactly the same.’ (Vintage International, 2007, pp338-9).”
Some people call me cynical because not only do I believe such novelistic truth, but also I bet the chief denouncers were the leading “patriots” of the village. Because I accept the verisimilitude of Nemirovsky’s portrayal of life in a close-knit French village under German occupation, I marvel all the more at the courage of Joseph in the small village of Nazareth under Roman occupation. Joseph was what the English would call a decent man or even a gentleman; (how few of them there are left, alas!). To guard Mary’s honor in a village of normal human backstabbers and fashionable finks requires courage and cunning and Joseph had both.
I like to think of Joseph as a mature man, a grownup in control of his life and able to do without the constant approval of others that so many so-called adults seem to need all the time. His first instinct was to protect Mary, to save her pride and guard her dignity. This instinct was confirmed by God through an angelic visitation that told him who Mary really is, the Mother of God, and more importantly even, who her child is. After that religious experience Joseph was more than just a decent man, he was a link in the chain of events by which God was acting to save us all from sin and death. Nevertheless, it was not unimportant that he was a gentleman before he was a saint.
I remind you once more of our sermons this summer on the parables in the center of Luke’s gospel, how so many of them present God as a guardian of human dignity. The boss of the unjust steward allows the steward to steal from him again to save his dignity; the father of the prodigal son treats the loser son as an honored guest; the shepherd treats the lost sheep as worth more than the 99 obedient sheep, the rich man goes to hell not because he is rich but because he shames poor Lazarus. Joseph deals with the teenage Mary like the major protagonist in the parables, to save her dignity, shelter her from ignominy, and deliver her from the righteous people in the village who would have stoned her to death for fornication.
It is lamentable that to this day the hypocrites are still in control. Think only of the journalists and now the bloggers; so relentlessly moral when dealing with public figures like celebrities and politicians, as if their own lives were pure; (but now I am beginning to sink in the metaphorical mud, so let me scramble back to shore and congratulate Joseph once more for being such a good chap, such a decent fellow).
From this point I am indebted to my dear wife Rosemary who for a very long time has been an advocate for Joseph. Consider: Jesus said, “When you pray say father…” Consider: the hero of many of his parables is a father or father figure. Consider; the image of the invisible God that he revealed to us he called “father.” Might we say, “like his father Joseph?” We say that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, and we might parse this to mean that divinity is disclosed in his humanity and humanity is composed in his divinity. As a human child he would have learned like all human children learn, and much from the example of his parents. This clearly means that Jesus’ idea of God as Father was formed from the example of Joseph, whom he knew had protected rather than prosecuted his mother, had cast the mantle of his own honor over the dishonored girl, and delivered her intact into her earthly role as the mother of God. Clearly Jesus learned much about God from his mother, and now let’s acknowledge that he also learned from his father.
The lesson he learned is essentially the same as the lesson he teaches in the Lukan parables; God acts to cover our shame, protect our pride, save our self-respect; God does not search out or failures and our faults, does not delight in accusing us, does not denounce us to the authorities, but covers us with his honor, consoles us with his love, and desires only our success and happiness. This I believe to be the bedrock truth of reality, so I plead “Not guilty!” to the charge of “cynic.”
I have recently come to know of an Italian Catholic organization called. “Communion and Liberation.” One of their members sent on my sermons to their leaders and got a positive response. No wonder; a motto of their founder Fr Luigi Giussani, taken from the Russian thinker Soloviev is: “What we have most dear in Christianity is Christ himself; Christ himself and all that comes from him, since in him dwells all the fullness of divinity in the flesh,” and this motto is what I have always preached. I have always preached this because it is the central and repeated message of the New Testament. So at Christmas we remember the birth of the one who is everything in our precious faith. Fr Giussani’s message this Christmas is worth repeating, because it confirms what I have said about Joseph and saves me having to preach a longer sermon. Here it is; listen; pay attention: “Christianity is not born as the fruit of our culture or as the discovery of our intelligence…it reveals itself in facts, events, which constitute a new reality in the world, a living reality; in movement. Christian reality is God’s mystery that has entered the world as a human history.”
The entry point of that mystery is both the womb of Mary and the mantle of Joseph’s honor that protected her and brought her safely to the stable in Bethlehem. When Jesus spoke of his father he meant God, but he imagined God through the memory of his earthly father and the quiet courage with which Joseph maintained the honor of his mother.
There’s a rather mawkish song whose refrain is “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It expresses the heart of our Christian aspiration no matter how ludicrous it may at times sound. There is a line in the song that epitomizes Joseph. It goes, “…we will guard each ones dignity and save each ones pride.” That is what the God of Jesus does for us all. Let’s be clear about that this Christmas. Let’s think again of Joseph.