Reading from the Gospels, Advent 4, Year A: Matthew 1.18-25
In a Book of Hours created in France in the Middle Ages, there is a depiction of the Nativity that I love. In the foreground, Joseph holds the newborn Jesus on his lap. They lean their heads close toward one another as the donkey and the ox—those animals of the manger who appear in every medieval depiction of Jesus’ arrival—look on. In the background, spent from her labor, Mary is in bed, happily reading a book.
The medieval artist who created this illuminated page has captured the essence of Joseph. His depiction of Joseph holding his chosen son is deeply grounded in this Sunday’s gospel lection, where Matthew tells us practically everything we know of this man who became the earthly father of God. In this passage from Matthew’s opening chapter, we observe Joseph as he receives his own Annunciation. In his dreaming, he hears from an angel some of the very words that Mary heard in her waking: “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells him, just before announcing the outlandish request that God is making of Joseph.
Last week we heard Mary’s Magnificat, the song she sings in response to Elizabeth’s blessing: the song of the God who does outlandish things in this world. This week we see how the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat echoes in Joseph’s own life. Her song resounds in Joseph’s choice not to send away his pregnant fiancé but rather to cast his lot with her and with the child she will bear. Joseph’s choice mirrors Mary’s own. Each with their own response, Joseph and Mary alike bear witness to the God who reorders, disturbs, unsettles the world—the God who seeks to do this through God’s people. Through us.
The man whom I love has a son, and his son whom I love has changed how I read Joseph’s story. I am intrigued by this Joseph who claimed a child who was not his own, this man who drew a circle of family not only around Mary but also around her son, her Word-made-flesh. I think of Joseph sometimes when I am with Emile, this young man who is replete with words of his own, who, especially as a child, used them endlessly and intensely and who could alternately delight me with his love of words and wear out my contemplative soul with his abundance of them.
I love the love of word play that Emile inherited from his father, how the three of us connect through this, how he surprises me with his turns of phrase: “Have you ever taken a succulent ham on a picnic?” he once asked as a young boy. And then how he could turn words into daggers. As he moved through childhood, Emile dosed me regularly with the reality, with the earthiness, of a boy filled with words that sometimes came with lots of grit.
Emile has mellowed as a teenager, the abundance and intensity of his words settling into a different rhythm. And as he moves into his own life, his own choices, there are times I miss the sound of his voice and the presence of his words. I choose him still, and the message he bears. Ten years since first meeting this man and his child, I still choose this stretching into a vast, unknown terrain that the journey with this father and son calls me to.
Mary was not the only one who chose to leave the life she had thought would be hers. In choosing Mary and her child, in welcoming the Word into his life, Joseph had his own threshold to cross, his own radical yes to say to God. Perhaps on the night of Jesus’ birth, Joseph lifted up a father’s Magnificat in syllables lost to us; perhaps, in a shelter far from home, he wove them into a lullaby for his chosen child.
What are you choosing this day? In your waking, in your dreaming, how are you listening for and attending to the messages and the invitations that are waiting for you?
A Prayer for Choosing
What we choose
Who we love
How we create
Where we live
So in all our choosing,
O God, make us wise;
in all our loving,
O Christ, make us bold;
in all our creating,
O Spirit, give us courage;
in all our living
may we become whole.
[A portion of this reflection is adapted from my book The Luminous Word: Entering the Mysteries of Advent & Christmas. “A Prayer for Choosing” is from In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season © Jan L. Richardson.]