We are star-gazers. Often bedazzled with lights, and smoke and mirrors; with fame and show and smooth talking. Andy Warhol is noted for quipping that, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” referring to all the people who wanted to be photographed with him. Star-struck, we are!
I had an interesting conversation with Marcus Elmer at Jay Majors’ funeral the other day. Marcus and Gary Majors have been friends since they were children. This gathering put him in a place of remembering and reflecting his experience at Mt. Tabor. He had come to church here some as a child, but fell away in his teens. He became pretty cynical about Christians, even though he knew little about them. Then, one day, someone invited him to youth group. There, he met a youth director who was very charismatic and could clearly explain to him who Jesus was. I won’t be able to quote Marcus exactly, but he said something like: “Jay and Dorothy were very involved at Mt. Tabor. They were not the show-stoppers, the people with a way with words like this youth director, but without them, the whole ministry would never have been there. I would never have met the youth director, and I may never have met Jesus. My life would be so different without the Jay Majors of the world! I have always looked at the leaders, the stars, but it takes all the people. All are equally important.” He implied that in many ways, he owed his life to the people of the church, who pray, give, hand out bulletins, and make a friendly connection. These are what make the church go.
Allan Boesak, a pastor from South Africa, wrote this:
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
(One verse from his poem, “Advent Credo,” From Walking on Thorns, by Allan Boesak, Eerdmans, 2004)
It is not the special ones we must await. The faithful ones will do the trick. Like Joseph.
We have a tendency to think of joy in the dance-sparkle-dazzle-balloons kind of way. That is more like happiness. And happiness is a good thing. But I am wondering if it is the same thing as Joy. I am thinking that Joseph, salt of the earth, Joseph, may tell us more about joy.
Another story: Friday was the longest night of the year. We gathered, those of us who are in the presence of darkness and grief this happy season. We lit candles, read poems, and prayed. After the liturgy, I invited those who would like to stay, to sit in a story-circle – to tell the stories we brought with us to this service of darkness. We went around the circle and shared the grief that accompanies us this season. As we went around the room, one of the story-tellers said something like, “Here I find joy, in the company of those who I know grieve with me.” Joy. And grief. Both together. That is what she said. There was no happy-dance in the room. This was a different kind of joy.
The best way I know to describe it is as the end of a heavy sigh, muscles releasing their tension, in the presence of another. Honest presence. That moment when we know we are not alone. And, as God said when God created light, “It is good!”
Joseph is a mysterious, shadowy figure in the Christmas story. Not the glitzy star. This was not his fifteen minutes of fame. Well, maybe. At least it was his moment to have his picture taken with the star!
I set out this year what has become my favorite Nativity Creche. All the pieces are carved in white stone. The characters are tall and angular, suggestive, rather than photographic images. Everyone I have showed it to asks, “Which one is Joseph?” Because, you can’t tell. The guys all look the same. One of my daughters solved the mystery, I think. There is a pattern carved into the robes of one of the guys which is similar to that pattern in the Mary piece. We only know Joseph because of his proximity to Mary. Pretty much like the story in the Bible.
Again, Joseph blends in with the crowd. Nothing special. A good man. Nothing bad to say about him. Just not much to say at all.
I am watching an apocalyptic story, called The Handmaid’s Tale. In it, the United States has undergone a violent revolution and is now in the hands of a cruel, violent minority. The handmaid, and many others, simply want out. Underground messages and travel systems have developed. Finally the handmaid meets one of these who conducts people to Canada and freedom. She asks, “who are these people? Why do they do this?” The conductor says, “They are either brave or stupid.” And she asks, “Which are you? Brave or stupid?” His face breaks a wry smile, “Well, I am not brave.”
Joseph was being asked to be a conductor to freedom, for Mary, for the child. Was he brave or stupid?
From what little we know of Joseph, he died before Jesus reached adulthood and began his ministry. Jesus’ villagers knew Joseph. But those who told the story of Jesus did not know and had never met Joseph. We believe that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was one of the sources Luke used to write his gospel. Mary knew Joseph, and so, we hear some “we” kinds of passages which are typical of parents remembering the stories of their parenting years. Jesus’ parents took him to the temple, Jesus’ parents were distressed when he stayed behind in Jerusalem at age 12. Jesus’ parents did not understand what he thought he was doing. We know from the villagers’ comments that he was a carpenter. We know from Matthew’s account that he was a good man, righteous. He wanted to follow the law, but he did not want to see Mary stoned to death. And so he chose a quiet alternative – divorce, rather than stoning.
An aside…. We should be aware that in those days of Roman occupation, many young girls were raped by Roman soldiers. Society still judged the girls to be at fault, broken, and shamed. I imagine Joseph assumed this had happened to Mary – rape she would not admit. In grace, he did not think it just for her to die for this. He was one of the good ones, who could see that it was not her fault. At the same time, he did not want to be tainted by that shame. So he would divorce her quietly.
There is a theme in Matthew’s story of Joseph which I find intriguing and compelling. It makes me think that perhaps Joseph was brave.
This Joseph, like the Joseph son of Jacob, of the Hebrew story…, this Joseph had dreams.
I have dreams on occasion. Sometimes they are powerful and memorable. But mostly, they are re-workings of the activities and experiences of my day. I don’t have the kinds of dreams which change my life. But Joseph did! Not once, not twice, but three time! God spoke to Joseph in a dream, telling him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. That she was not unfaithful.
While Mary was away visiting Elizabeth, the angel of the Lord had some dealings with Joseph. A dream. Maybe repeated dreams to get his attention. Go ahead and marry her. It is okay. It is something I, God, am doing, which will be deep joy – it is the way to freedom, to salvation.
Brave and stupid are sometimes the same thing. Bravery isn’t something we are born with, but something which happens in us when we do the right thing. Stupid to some eyes, brave to others. Joseph somehow chose to follow the dream, to trust that it was the angel of the Lord. He probably didn’t know himself whether he was being brave or stupid. But he did it.
It was one more good thing he could do.
Two more dreams came to him. And he recognized them as the leading of God. Brave or stupid, he followed. Jesus was born, lived a powerful tragic life. The neighbors probably continued to judge him stupid when Jesus was crucified. They were unswayed when the rumors of resurrection spread. They may have judged Joseph – Mary, too – to be stupid fools, getting us all into trouble with the Romans for no reason.
Joseph. He may have been old. He may have worked in a difficult, low-esteem trade. But he was brave. A put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of bravery. He trusted that love would win in the end. That grace was the path to follow.
He was quiet about it. Not a super star. But when I think of Joseph, I believe he knew joy. The deep sense of being in the center of what God was doing in the world. He was one of the people who did his small part. He showed up. And God would do with that what God would do.
So too, we who gather. We are not many of us famous. Not many of us published. Not many of us wealthy. Not many of us stars. We are the Josephs of this era. We do the next good thing. From there we know joy. And it is enough.
May the simple joys of knowing we are not alone, that we are held in the arms of love, that incarnation is always just around the corner, that a smile is a good gift – May these joys go deep in our souls this Advent.