Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Quiet Man

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1.24-25)
The Strong, Silent Type

“Strength calls unto strength” the proverb goes. Having been privileged to be part of a family of extraordinarily strong women (on both sides), I can attest to this, as I’ve also been blessed to grow up around amazingly strong men. Both sexes in our clan assert their strengths in what you might call classic Southern style. The women are more demonstrative, talkative, and imaginative—always organizing things, starting projects, getting involved, etc., which tends to catapult them into leadership positions. The men exhibit their strengths in quieter, complementary ways that support their wives, mothers, and daughters. They embody “the strong, silent type.” The outsider naïvely assumes our men play secondary roles, when nothing is further from the truth. Within our ranks, it’s no secret men and women share equal responsibility for leadership, and nothing happens without mutual consent.

Heritage surely colors my image of Joseph. Yet there’s no arguing he indeed is the strong, silent type. His strength leaps out of the story. Here’s a young, self-employed man from a good family, the Biblical equivalent of “Mayflower bluebloods” that can trace its genes back to Abraham. Joseph’s parents arrange his marriage to a local young woman. Everything’s going along as planned, when the rug gets yanked from beneath them. She gets pregnant through none of her doing. Acting as though nothing’s wrong is not an option. Joseph can rush into marriage, which effectively casts him as the child’s father and ruins his and Mary’s reputations. Or he can cancel their engagement, discreetly sending her away to deal with the baby and shame on her own. Loathsome as the second choice is, it’s the better of the two. Then a new wrinkle appears in their situation. An angel, perhaps the same one that visits Mary, tells Joseph to stand by her and consummate their marriage after she delivers. Such a tactic invites huge risk and demands enormous strength. But that’s what Joseph decides to do.

The Only Word

Many voices filter through the Christmas story—Mary’s, several angels’, Elizabeth’s, Zechariah’s, Herod’s, the Wise Men’s, and the shepherds’—but not one statement comes directly from Joseph. We don’t know what he says to his angel. We’re not privy to his conversations with Mary or his family. Everyone else talks; Joseph listens. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t reveal feelings or thoughts. All we know about him emerges in what he does. As the single unquoted person in the story, he’s definitely its most intriguing character. Furthermore, since we live in an age severely lacking spousal and paternal models, not hearing Joseph explicitly convey his inner thoughts and emotions is unfortunate.

Now brace yourself for the most delectable irony of all time. While the Gospels fail to record Joseph word-for-word, he becomes history’s most oft-quoted individual. In the half-second needed to ponder that, a thousand people (at least) spoke the only word ever attributed to him. After the Christ Child is born, Matthew 1.25 says Joseph “gave him the name Jesus.” The moment Joseph names the Baby he provides the world its most precious—and most abused—word. Billions around the world say “Jesus” daily, many of them several times a day. Some utter it in reverence. Others use it casually. Still others spit it in anger and frustration. But as the first human to say it, had Joseph not called Mary’s Son “Jesus,” we’d be no more likely to call that name than any other.

Preferences Aside

Joseph might have gained prominence by actually choosing Jesus’s name. But as the Baby isn’t his, he has no paternal naming rights. The angel gives Joseph Jesus’s name in advance. A weaker, less astute man would bristle at being told what to name the Child, resenting it as one more thankless task in an overall thankless job. Not Joseph. He sets his preferences aside to support Mary and follow God’s direction. Thus, on that frigid night, in that dim and gamy stable, when Joseph says, “Jesus,” the only word attributed to him forever shatters darkness and radiates warmth.

There’s a wealth of knowledge to glean from the Quiet Man. Listening, trusting, and obeying are far more important than speaking. Seeking God’s will is nobler than looking for recognition. Setting personal preferences aside to support those selected for more substantial duties is an equal honor and responsibility. What we say, not how much of it, is the measure of our character. Courage and leadership are revealed in our willingness to accept what we don’t understand as well as in our persistence when logic insists we give up. One word, two syllables—Jesus—is all we have from Joseph. Yet when he says that, he says it all.

Nothing Joseph ever said is directly quoted in Scripture, yet the one word we know he spoke makes him the most frequently quoted human in history.

(Next: The Gift Worth Having)

Postscript: The Women in Jesus's Past

Claire, over at A Seat at the Table, just posted a lovely supplement to the list of Joseph's ancestors that opens Matthew's account. Today's post originally contained a comment about his taking the time to list 42 generations of men, from Abraham to Joseph, which technically doesn't matter since Jesus has no biological father. [Matthew uses the list prove Jesus is "the seed of David, the seed of Abraham" {v1.1), but his rationale is a little sketchy given the Virgin Birth.]

I cut my comments for length and clarity's sake, but also with regret. We have no history of Mary's ancestry, which is truly unfortunate. However, when I saw Claire's post of "A Genealogy of Jesus Christ" compiled by Anne Patrick Ware of the Women's Liturgy Group of New York, I realized this is as close as we can get to recognizing the powerful influence the women in Jesus's past surely had on His life. It's a lovely piece of work--something worth reflecting on during this Advent season. (Thanks, Claire!)

A Genealogy of Jesus Christ

A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam,
the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon
and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiahim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehiachinm
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiaj.
Then the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is therefore:
fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation
to Miriam, the mother of Christ.

Compiled by Ann Patrick Ware
of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York

PS: If you've not yet got over to Claire's place, you must! It's a warm, wonderful, and inspiring oasis of calm in the midst the Web's chaos.


claire bangasser said...

I don't know why, Tim, but yesterday as I was thinking of Jesus calling his Father, Abba, Daddy, I wondered whether his description of the Prodigal Father, in the Prodigal Son, was not in fact a description of Joseph... Your 'Quiet Man.'

For wouldn't it make sense that God would give His son an earthly father that would shape Jesus' image of 'father' in a way that would lead us to believe in a generous, all-forgiving God?

Probably all too anthropomorphic.

Thank you for a neat post :-)

Tim said...

As I worked on this, Claire, I kept thinking of how Jesus stood silently before His accusers. I couldn't shake the idea that He learned the art of keeping quiet from Joseph.

I agree, it makes total sense that God would choose an earthly father who would exemplify His own traits. It's all so beautiful to consider--no stone went unturned to make the plan absolutely perfect!

Such a joy always to hear from you, Claire. Have a most joyous holiday!


grant said...

Beautiful article, Tim. Thanks. I guess this is the week for reflections on the holy couple. I also blogged some thoughts:Here: FWIW...


Tim said...

Grant, just came back from your place--good stuff! I'm prone to agree with you; the holy couple more likely was shunned than squeezed out. Less a matter of hotel reservations (if you will) than social reservations.

We don't care to look at Mary as a social pariah/accused adulteress, yet that's how many in her day must have viewed her. There was only one explanation for her condition in their minds: either she and Joseph jumped into bed too soon (which also saddles him with fornication charges) or she was unfaithful to him. The second charge--as you point out at your place--exposes Mary to possible execution. If that's the case, it's far more likely Joseph's family and neighbors in Bethlehem treated her/them like sex offenders, rather than two sweet kids in a bind.

I'd never heard the theory that the stable might also have been used because it was more suitable for the "unclean" aspects of birth. That also makes a lot of sense in an ancient agrarian culture.

Either way--stigma or hygiene--however Joseph was challenged to protect Mary and her Child, and he comes through in spectacular ways.

Thanks for the comment and the link (which is worth looking at, indeed).

Blessings of comfort and joy,

genevieve said...

Some of the great leaders are the strong silent type who go about their Godly duties without fanfare.

Christmas is a time of reflection for me because there's so much to be thankful for. It's also a time where men and women can change through the power of God through Jesus.

Tim said...

I completely agree with you, Genevieve. Great leaders often prove the value of getting out of the way so God can have His way. Doing that takes great discipline and self-confidence, though--both of them in short supply these days.

When we take the time to reflect on the Christmas story, as you point out, we're inevitably grateful and reminded of how powerful our God is. That He uses two kids from a tiny town in an occupied land to change the entire world--and ultimately bring the Empire that oppresses Mary and Joseph's people to its knees--is astonishing.

As the old gospel tune says, "It is no secret what God can do. What He's done for others, He'll do for you." When we think of what He did for Mary and Joseph, His potential in all our lives is nothing short of phenomenal. In many ways, the power He displays in the Christmas story is the greatest gift of all.

Blessings and best wishes for a delightfully sacred and joyous holiday.