This week’s readings are here. I only consciously used the gospel (Matthew) but I read all of them.
Joseph was a man, a tradesman- perhaps a small business owner. He was working class, though probably not poor, his son Jesus seems to have received a decent sort of an education and had the freedom to wander as a street-preacher/magician rather than being desperately needed to support the family. I guess what I am trying to portray is a man with a vested interest in the status quo, a man with some privilege but also precariously enough placed that “honour” was a concern.
It was a patriarchal world. Men’s honour especially around “their” women’s sexuality was a significant thing. For Joseph to act as a man of his time, do the “right” thing, the “rational” thing, the “common-sense” thing would be to break off his engagement to Mary. In his time and place, it may not have been seen as unusual or unduly harsh if he made a big fuss (which might have led to her being cast out of the community or stoned I suppose) but he is “righteous” and unwilling to expose her to shame. Nevertheless there is no real question within his place and time (and his role as a man, a potential head of a household) of continuing a relationship with a young woman who is pregnant with someone else’s child.
It’s easy then to view what happens simplistically, God speaks and Joseph obeys. If we go further and view God as “male” then it becomes a meeting between two males to discuss the fate of a woman and child. If we read it this way, then nothing very radical happens, though we breathe a sigh of relief that Mary and that important baby are safe.
But what does our experience tell us about God speaking? An “angel” appeared to him in a “dream”. Without wanting to keep God out of the equation, I want to bring in a more modern understanding of what dreams are. Our “subconscious” communicates our deeply held and sometimes hidden from desires and truths to us in dreams. Science around natural processes like evolution, tells us that God’s influence over the world works with the nature of what the world is, with the cause and effect (and free will) of processes, organisms, lifecycles, webs of relationality. God can only communicate to the person whose heart is open to God (otherwise we have no free will). God calls us into right ways of being with each other- yes- but never against our deepest self. Joseph’s call from God and unhesitating response to it reveals something deeply true about Joseph’s nature and inner being.
Joseph resolves on the “common sense” course of action but his sleep is troubled by his inner need for relationship, to be a nurturer of something he neither owns nor controls. God speaks into his potential for unselfish love and asks for the impossible. Lay aside your patriarchal ownership of your family and follow Mary’s vocation, nurture a child of God. Significantly the angel says “Do not be afraid” indicating that the only thing stopping Joseph from this radical course of love, was fear. God takes away the need to fear, the need to know, the need to control.
Oftentimes men who claim to be “feminist” or “pro-feminist” or “anti-sexist” expect women to be very emotionally nurturing of them, to explain everything and open up everything to them and to keep on every step coaxing, seducing and rewarding them for the slightest pro-feminist leaning. Let’s not get side-tracked into “not all men” because that sort of a debate is actually part of the pattern I am speaking about. Men then, within patriarchy often expect women to be the keepers and sorters of their emotions one way or another, to constantly reassure and encourage them and to take emotional responsibility for a relationship.
Within that context, this is a good week for me to remember that even though I often use the female pronoun for God, God is in fact NOT FEMALE just as much as I have previously asserted that God is NOT MALE. I need to underline that in preface to looking at who does the “emotional labour” of this encounter. Initially I was suspicious of the way Mary gets talked about and does not get to speak in this story, and in fact far too much of the bible is phallocentric and features women only in semi-objectified roles. But when I remember the way Mary comes across in Luke and John’s gospel as very much having her own mind and motivations, her own feisty relationship with God and deep trust in her child. When I remember how little Joseph is featured in the gospels except as a background to Mary and the baby or in a “Mary and Joseph” sort of a scene where they both fail to fully understand Jesus then I am keen to see the value of this episode.
Then I begin to see that what we have here is a man taking emotional responsibility for himself and his own difficult feelings, sitting with the situation instead of rushing to take it out on “his” woman and letting God speak and advise him instead of expecting to be emotionally babied. Then I get to see that the angel’s “explanation” to Joseph is no sort of an explanation really, that ultimately he is still in the dark about a significant event in Mary’s life. His choice to love and trust her unconditionally remains a choice, it is not at all made easy or logical by the angel quoting scripture at him!
So Joseph takes the pregnant Mary into his home and becomes one of those heroic people who loves a child for some reason other than a desire for your own genes to continue. Jesus is born into a home that transgresses the hetero-sexual matrix (in the way his parents fail to stick to the strictest versions of their gender roles, in the loss of patriarchal “honour” by Joseph accepting him, in the unorthodox way he has been conceived- although we actually know very little about that we know it wasn’t something that happened within marriage). God as Jesus’ co-parent relates to Mary and brings Joseph into the equation too. I like to think that after all this courage, Mary and Joseph had a loving and warm relationship and I certainly am not trying to undermine the idea of a man loving a woman or a woman loving a man. It is significant though, in a time when we are as a society asking questions about whether there is one shape of family only that God has mandated to recall that Jesus’ own situation was somewhat transgressive and not entirely respectable for his place and time. His parents had to show great courage to bring up this child of God.
So add this one last miracle to the lead-up to Christ’s birth. A man follows his heart (stirred by God) to courageously love and follow what he cannot control. A family is made outside the narrowly patriarchal tradition of what counts. God is with us!