Tuesday, June 2, 2009

12-23-2007: 4th Advent (A)

Isaiah 7:10-14/Psalm 24/Romans 1:1-7/Matthew 1:18-24
Mothers no doubt bear the burden of birth in far greater ways than fathers do, especially when a pregnancy is unexpected, most especially when it is unwanted. A hint of that gender dichotomy is made evident in today’s gospel which focuses our attention more on Joseph than Mary.

In popular Catholic piety Joseph is often presented as a mild-mannered and milquetoast chap, devoted to Mary as if she were already an apparition. So docile is Joseph’s stance toward Mary in this kind of hagiography, you could almost picture him saying the rosary or snapping his head up and down like a hungry chicken each time she called Jesus by name. And while some would argue that the gospel account of Jesus’ origins amounts to the same pious whitewashing of some hard realities (an apt definition of hagiography), there is evidence of refreshing honesty as well – as the admission in today’s gospel of Joseph’s initial desire to wash his hands of the whole mess.

Joseph’s reaction to the news of Mary’s pregnancy presents a paradox, rooted perhaps in our lack of precise knowledge of Jewish marriage customs of that time and place. Though not yet married, Mary’s betrothal to Joseph seems to have been far more binding than a modern engagement, divorce being necessary to break the arrangement. This backdrop highlights the paradox: Is Joseph’s desire to divorce evidence of his virtue, or is it indeed his way of escaping an unpleasant situation?

If there’s any virtue to ascribe to Joseph’s initial intentions, it’s his willingness to divorce quietly, presumably saving Mary from the accusation of adultery and the stoning that might follow. What emerges as an unintended, and therefore authentic, historical conclusion is that Joseph clearly knew he wasn’t the father of the child - a fact which might challenge those Christian denominations who do not accept the Virginal Conception as historical, with the inevitable conclusion that the father must be an unnamed third-party.

Before his revelatory dream Joseph sees only two possible solutions to the problem: to divorce quietly or to divorce publicly. This initial reaction might not portray Joseph as especially virtuous but it does make him a thoroughly believable historical figure, as he offers a typically male response which echoes through the ages in every man’s heart: where's the nearest exit?

While, from theology’s point of view, it’s Mary’s consent on which hung the salvation of the world, the practical reality is that Joseph’s dream made all the difference. His choice to marry Mary and give the child the protection of legitimacy cannot be underestimated when we consider the possible outcomes if he hadn’t.

Men, these days, are often chided for their lack of responsibility, their penchant to embrace a dead-beat status as dads or anything else. Suggested solutions range from military induction (the Marines’ll make a man of him) to formal religious vows (the Promise Keepers’ movement). But perhaps Joseph’s story offers the best insight: men need to dream. Discipline, asceticism, self-denial, guilt may curb the male impulse for a while, but only inspiration respects that impulse as God-given, able to transform its raw power into a powerful creativity.

Remember: Joseph became the father he was intended to be, not because he was virtuous or pious or responsible, but because he listened to his dreams.

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