John or Jesus, Mary or Joseph?

Cambridge, MA. Joseph's DreamThe Advent days leading up to the Nativity are rich with the familiar Gospel stories, largely from Luke 1 and Matthew 1, that speak of the coming of Christ, and these as enriched with many passages from Isaiah and other prophets taken, from early on, to prefigure the Christ. The theology, imagery, demands are gentle. However dark and cold the winter, however grim the social and political scene, this is a time of hope: light in the darkness.

We often leave it at that, in part because we think of Lent as the more arduous season, dedicated to penance, prayer, and ideally conversion of heart and mind. But in a more subtle way, the Gospel readings in Advent puts before us choices about how we are to imagine the coming of Christ, how we relate to it, and how we are to act: who are we, in Advent?

On the Third Sunday of Advent (December 15), we heard passages from Matthew 11 that at first might be thought a very odd fit for Advent:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepersare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The chapter continues, with Jesus’ extravagant praise of John — as Elijah returned, and as unlike any other:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

But by the end of the whole scene, the comings of John and Jesus have been compared and subtly contrasted, without Jesus dismissing what John stands for:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Two kinds of wisdom, side by side.

John seems to have been disappointed in Jesus. Jesus came, John introduced him, and yet the world seems to go on as before. John is in prison for denouncing Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own; Jesus, though headed for a confrontation, has not denounced the Romans or liberated Jerusalem. Jesus is remarkable – the blind see, the lame walk… - but his transformation of society is on a small scale, one by one, individuals one at a time, not the whole of society, the kingdom. Jesus is changing society from within, in a gradual fashion; John yearned for more, and hence he doubted whether Jesus, so patient and unsensational, could be the One. Even so, Jesus does not dismiss what may have been John’s larger dream, a more direct confrontation with the powers that be, prophetic witness in a very strong sense. Change the world all at once, or a person at a time? Find your vocation.

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22), from Matthew 1, puts Joseph on center stage. Though Mary’s pregnancy is key to the scene, she herself is not present, but is only talked about. We tend to think of Mary and Joseph always together, in Bethlehem, at the crib, in Egypt, etc. But here Joseph is on his own — and that, I think, is the point. Joseph could be anyone — “everyman” — he is a person with no particular insight or wisdom regarding the coming messiah. He is no John the Baptist, but probably the young man down the street. So unsurprisingly, he is thrown off when he finds that his marriage partner-to-be is already pregnant:

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Joseph was not at the annunciation, he did not hear Gabriel’s explanation, and apparently Mary told him nothing. We know what happened, but he does not. So Joseph has to fall back on his basic goodness and moral upbringing:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

He is both righteous and compassionate: compassionate because righteous, he has no desire to shame Mary, no intention to find and confront the scoundrel who slept with her. He will simply and quietly send her back to her parents.

The example of Joseph is a good one for us: what to do, how to be, when what is supposed to be God’s great plan comes across to us, close up, merely as scandal, personal upset: act according to your best instincts, and always with compassion.

Yet there is more to Joseph, since he is willing to be instructed beyond his ordinary capacities. He does not meet an angel directly as did Mary, but in a dream finds out what he is to do:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” …When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;and he named him Jesus.

Joseph is not Mary, with her special graces, intimate connection with the Spirit and then with the child in her womb; nor is he remarkable and unforgettable as is John the Baptist. Joseph is no prophet — indeed, he says nothing in the Gospels. But he is a role model. He is a stand-in for the rest of us, near to the revelation, but on its outer edge, without special insight: an ordinary good person, who is compassionate because he is righteous, who is just outside the realm of divine mystery, but who participates in accord with what comes to him in his dreams.

As Christmas dawns, we can imagine which part to we want to play: a John, who seeks more radical transformation of society; a Jesus who helps people one by one, in a way that only slowly opens up into salvation for all; a Mary who is an intimate insider to God’s plan; a Joseph who does the right thing by natural virtue, good upbringing, and a willingness to listen to dream voices. In fact, perhaps it is more Josephs, more natural goodness and decency, that we really need today.

(Based on two recent homilies, and on an ongoing project about the Unfading Garland, an 18th century Tamil epic about St. Joseph, by Constantine Beschi, SJ)