by Linda McMillan
This is the order of the readings for Advent this year:
It’s backwards. On this last week of Advent, the lectionary has us in Matthew Chapter 1. You would think that Chapter 1 would be near the beginning and Chapter 24 would be near the end. A few weeks ago when I laid that out, I thought, That’s weird. But, the lectionary is a special gift. If you just go with it, you might be surprised.
Last week we read, “Blessed is he who is not scandalized by me.”
This week we will be given more details than we really need about Jesus’s conception. They are scandalous details! Jesus was conceived outside of marriage, by less than clear means, to a teenager! Anyone from a small town knows that it’s scandalous.
But, blessed are you if you are not scandalized by it. Joseph was the first person to not be scandalized by Jesus. In what must have been one of those moments when you know that life will never again be the same, Joseph said yes to an angel and took the unborn Jesus to raise as his own son.
There are a few, rare moments in each life when we know that life will never again be the same. Without offering any specific examples, most of you have already thought of at least one such time in your own life. I’d bet money on it. There are moments which serve as markers of the wild turns that generally come along once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. Maybe more. Everybody is different.
You are not alone, though. Everybody who has either had such a moment, or they will. Oh, and Saint Joseph. He had a moment like that too.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph. The Biblical record is scant, and the historical record is non-existent, but we do have a pretty good story, so let’s go with that:
Joseph was from Bethlehem. Because he was wise and educated, he was made a priest in the temple. He was also a skillful carpenter. He got married and had six children. Eventually, Joseph had one of those moments when he knew that his life would be forever changed: His wife died. Joseph went away with his sons to practice the art of carpentry.
At that time, Mary was only 12 years old and living in the temple where she had been resident since the age of three. The priests noticed that Mary was growing up and they got worried about her getting pregnant. They talked it over and decided that they should find a trustworthy man, righteous and pious, to look after her until she was old enough to get married. Joseph, by then an old man, was chosen, and Mary went to live with him in his house.
Several years after going to live with Joseph, Mary had her miraculous encounter with the angel. When Joseph returned home from working in his carpentry shop he found her three-months pregnant. What a disaster! Joseph was supposed to prevent this very thing. He had failed. But, Joseph was a wise and educated man. He formulated a plan to “put her away quietly.” That’s Bible talk for D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Tammy Wynette style. But, the last thing Joseph wanted was a scandal, so he was going to go about it quietly.
I am sure that Joseph’s plan was a good one, that it respected all parties, or that it at least got him off the hook for failing to protect his young charge. But, life doesn’t always proceed as planned and Joseph would soon find himself in another one of those moments when life would change forever.
Our story says that Joseph was so upset about the situation that he didn’t eat or drink anything all day long. About noon the next day an angel appeared to Joseph and laid it all out for him. Like Mary, Joseph said yes to the angel and accepted responsibility for the child who was not his own. Six months later he and Mary would arrive in Bethlehem — Joseph’s hometown — to be registered in the census and Jesus would be born in a stable, placed in a manger, angels, shepherds, wise men, etc…
We all know the story so well that it’s almost pointless to re-tell it. As a way of revisioning this old story, though, let’s imagine what Joseph might have been thinking at this moment.
Obviously, he would have to abandon his plan. He was back on the hook for Mary’s condition. People would say that he was so old and unappealing that Mary had looked elsewhere before they were even married. Tongues were no doubt beginning to wag, shame creeping under the door, and the world that Joseph had built was crumbling around him, his reputation for piety and wisdom in tatters. And, of course, there was the slow realization that things would never, ever be the same.
Joseph, who would not be scandalized, became a scandal.
Drinking a bowl of tears, having been made a derision among his neighbors, Joseph may have turned to his Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms. If you’ve ever had the kind of life disruption that makes you think all is lost, that there is no recovery… Well, Psalm 80 is for you, and I suspect Joseph may have turned here too. It’s a Psalm of national lament, but the words are so personal and so relevant to life as we live it today, that it seems to fit with Joseph’s situation, and it might be a fit for you too.
There are things that happen and all seems lost. For the nation of Israel, it was slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, the sense that they’d been abandoned by God. For us, it could be anything. If only God would do something. If only God would come and help us, restore us, if only God would smile on us again… THEN things would be better.
But, this is still Advent. We are still waiting.
Before we rush to the side of the manger, take a minute to review the times of devastation in your life, those moments that you’d like to rewind to and edit out… because things really will never be the same again. Joseph could have walked away, but he didn’t. You and I may not have a choice. Chances are, we don’t. But we can embrace even the most scandalous changes. Joseph shows us how.
God will come. That much is sure. He will be here next week. What gifts will we bring? Another Psalm instructs us that, besides our adoration and hymnody, God would like to have our brokeness, the shattered pieces of our scandalous old lives. Those moments of irreversible turning into the unknown are a better gift than gold… I heard that somebody else is bringing that anyway.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China… Home of the Puffer Fish.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Matthew 11:6… And blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me. (Douay-Rheims Bible)
When I say that we have legends of Joseph, I am referring to the pseudepigraphical The History of Joseph the Carpenter, said to be an account of Joseph’s life given by Jesus to his disciples in one of their Mount of Olives idles. It is clear that the writer has objectives beyond merely telling the story of Joseph. It’s probably from the 4th or 5th century, though I found no source which was very confident in its dating. Originally in Arabic or Coptic, again depending on who you ask. You can read it here.
According to the story, Joseph had six children with his first wife: Four sons and two daughters. The sons were named Judas, Justus, James, and Simon; the daughters were Assia and Lydia.
Joseph’s first wife is unnamed, but it is noted in the story that she was a woman intent on the divine glory in all her works
There is another theory about Joseph’s wanting to divorce Mary quietly and that is that he believed in her virginity and the divinity of her child. According to this theory — sometimes called The Pious Theory — Joseph thought it was more likely that an angel had come down from Heaven and impregnated her by the Holy Spirit than that she would have done the deed with someone on the side. In any event, pious Joseph thought himself unworthy to be part of the divine family and wanted to humbly bow out. It’s a theory. You make your own decisions.
Psalm 80:5… Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. (KJV)
Psalm 80:6… Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves. (KJV)
Psalm 51:17… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (KJV) I think that the reference to contrition here is a secondary meaning. The words used for broken and contrite are both about being destroyed, shattered, crushed. To interject contrition is to ascribe a reason for the brokenness, and that’s appropriate for Psalm 51, but it doesn’t have to be translated that way.