2 Sermons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Ss Joseph and Mary
‘Male and Female he created them’
St Joseph and the Fatherhood of God
One of the great difficulties for us as Christians, especially in our day and age, is that we are completely unaware of the great biases we have. The logs in our eyes. Believing that we ‘know everything’, we are even more profoundly disabled by our ignorance. Like a stubborn older person who won’t use a walking stick ‘because people will think I am old . . .’ our pride leads us into terrible problems – not least when it comes to Knowing our faith as it has been passed down to us.
‘We know better nowadays’ is the mindless mantra drilled into us from our first encounter with what is falsely called ‘knowledge’. That the generation which knows so much is watching as the creation collapses around us, whilst simultaneously checking out pictures of cats on Facebook, betrays our deep ignorance of anything in the Real world. Hence the significance of The Tradition which Roots us in Christ and the Church and thus, anchored in Reality.
Our faith is Traditioned, it is handed down to us – we are given sight and understanding through the Grace of God by His Spirit, and don’t make it up for ourselves. And sight and understanding are embodied in a language. Christians when we are speaking truthfully speak differently to those amongst whom we live.
But, like anyone living in a strange land – we are tempted to try and fit in – we are too easily embarrassed by the things that make us seem odd, which make us stick out. The dominant culture shames us more or less subtly for our foolishness in thinking and speaking in such and such a way, not least when it comes to how we address God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for ever praised. Indeed our own NZ prayer book, seeking to fit in and hiding shamefully behind the fig leaves of cultural relevance, invites us to name God for ourselves. the Power to name is the power to define – our Gift is to name all that which God has set under us, to seek to name God is no less than to make ourselves God.
The final Sunday in Advent is traditionally the Sunday when we as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the fullness of the Incarnation in the birth of Jesus, and consider the Mother, Mary the one who is the God bearer – the one who holds the One who is uncontainable. However, we are in Year A, the first year of the three year cycle of our readings and so our gospel reading comes from Matthew. Matthew directs us in passing to the Unique circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy ‘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.’, Yet Matthew is more concerned to draw our attention to the forgotten figure in the drama of the birth of Jesus, the male . . . St Joseph. St Joseph, the male who is not the Father
Every year around the world in Western Churches two difficult questions are asked in preparation for Christmas – the first is ‘whose turn is it to play Mary in the Nativity??’ , this is difficult for there is never a shortage of willing girls to take this most prized role, and we MUST make sure that every girl gets a go! The second question is less politically tricky, more the sort of question we all too often face in the church, ‘who can we get to . . .’, in this case ‘who can we persuade – challenge – bribe – or if it comes down to it, Force to be Joseph?’
Finding volunteers to be Kings – or even shepherds? No problem! Good strong male characters, but Joseph? Everyone knows that Joseph is just a bit part in the story – he just has to tag along and look after the main player. All the photos afterwards are with the mother – babe in arms. For frankly who would want to be Joseph – indeed Joseph himself in all likelihood wasn’t terribly struck by the idea. Upon realising that his betrothed is inexplicably with child, his first response, ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,’ was to resolve to ‘dismiss her quietly.’ Let us not suppose darker motives – for Matthew tells us Joseph is a ‘righteous man’ – such a description is not to be taken lightly. What might be in view here is simply to quietly and privately ‘write her a certificate of divorce’ – rather than go to public trial over the matter, and thus ‘expose’ her, for he is a good man. The Woman is not to be exposed.
Whatever, he is in a very difficult situation – but perhaps that is nothing compared to a deeper matter – that he is not the father. He is a little more than an extra – having no agency. like the unwilling boy in the nativity, told where to stand – Joseph is told by the angel what he must do – a passive player in the drama of the birth of Christ.
The theologian Karl Barth puts it like this ‘“Born of the Virgin Mary” . . .from the human standpoint the male is excluded here. The male has nothing to do with this birth. What is involved here is, if you like a divine act of judgement. To what is beginning here man is to contribute nothing by his action and initiative. It is not that humanity is simply excluded, for the Virgin is there. But the male, as the specific agent of human action and history, must now retire into the background, as the powerless figure of Joseph’
Removing the male from the action when God sets about his most profound work, is a common theme in Scriptures First Adam is asleep as Eve,’the mother of al the living’ is created, then Abraham is asleep as God pronounces his covenant, and I could go on – Joseph of course only gets his orders, whilst he is asleep, only the men see visions and dream dreams – when God speaks to them they are asleep – Joseph is told, there is no conversation, his agency is purely to do as he is told. And again as he must take the infant Jesus to Egypt, the instruction comes not whilst he is at work, but whilst he is asleep . . .
Perhaps it is no surprise that little boys aren’t eagerly queuing up for this nativity play role. But I suggest that both the feminine eagerness and the masculine lack thereof both point us to something deeper. As I said we shall contemplate Mary this evening – but Joseph . . .
You see, the issue is quite plain at one level, he is not the father. Joseph is not the father – he must bring one up as a father but without being the Father – The Father.
As I’ve already mentioned – our modern western culture finds the name of God as traditioned – as handed down – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – embarrassing. A throwback to ‘a patriarchal and therefore oppressive way of seeing gate world from which we have now been liberated’. But this is a profound and tragic error on several levels.
Jesus as we know refers to God as his ‘Father’ – he teaches his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’. Of course if one was of such a will one could dismiss this under the ‘patriarchal’ argument – except for this. Jesus teaches us ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’
Put another way – you cannot define God by your earthly understanding of ‘father’ – to be ‘Father’ is something that can only be known in reference to God.
God in moving Joseph to one side reveals the utter inadequacy of the human male as a reference point for fatherhood. If we are to know what Father means, we must look to God, only in Knowing God, do we Know the Father.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
I had been a Christian for some time before I began to notice how I addressed God. In prayer and in my daily life I found myself crying out ‘Father’ – a spontaneous habit which only seemed to recede in those darker periods when I found myself rebelling against his Love. To Know Him is to Know The Father
Those sad cases one sometimes comes across in which a man (usually) says he cannot relate to God as Father because of his poor relationship with his own father only further highlights the essential point – that we cannot understand the Fatherhood of God from a human point of view. They are pointing right at the Fatherhood of God, for As one writer puts it ‘a strange discovery awaits every human being; the fact that a man does not possess the paternal instinct in the same was as a woman possesses the maternal instinct – there is nothing immediate in a man’s nature that corresponds directly to the principal of fatherhood’ for you have one Father, the One in heaven.’
Woman and the Salvation of the World
This morning we considered Joseph – so in the interests of equality it is only reasonable that tonight we consider Mary. I say ‘equality’, but it is notable that neither the Scriptures nor the Tradition treat Mary and Joseph as if they were equal . . . and as I said this morning we are wired by our culture to read texts in a certain way. If I say that ‘the Scriptures do not treat Mary and Joseph as equals’, then if we did not know any better we might fall into a lazy and easy assumption that Joseph as the man is held in far higher regard in ‘these patriarchal and outdated Scriptures’ than the ‘mere woman’ Mary, except of course, we know that is not so. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.
Joseph is that oxymoron – a ‘passive actor’, more fully a passive male – in the drama of the birth of Jesus. The birth of God into the World does not include Joseph – He does not speak a word. He is told what to do whilst he is asleep – in a dream. It is worth asking whether, because we live in a society which is profoundly masculinised, we fall too readily for the suggestion that the male is central to the Scriptural account and so fail to See, and be amazed by how marginal the male is in this narrative of the birth of Jesus.
Indeed as we explored this morning, do we miss the force of Jesus’ words ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ That is, there is no earthly referent with regard to Father? When God reveals himself as Father, actually we are told not to try and interpret Father with reference to the male human?? The man Joseph gives us no clue to the meaning of ‘Father’, the Name Father by which the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God. We Know God as Father, but that is a profound divine mystery for He is in heaven and there is not earthly example – not even St Joseph.
How different to Mary! This morning we contrasted what happened at nativities. Children as I so often say get it – they are in spiritual terms ‘thin places’ that is they are Open. In some respect this is MOST hazardous – children in this age as much as any other are exposed to many and terrible things – they are utterly open and we are utterly careless. We are all about protecting children, for they are utterly vulnerable and, in the next breath in the name of ‘education’ we put devices in their hands which which are doorways for much that they are not able to comprehend or worse which can literally destroy their souls – to Know everything – Good and Evil. Yet, at the same time, whilst there are still children in the Church, by grace they come to know God in Jesus, and Mary his mother.
How interesting it is that whilst boys are often grudging to play Joseph . . . Kings, YES! Shepherds . . .OK, but Joseph? Girls queue up to ‘be Mary’. The paternal instinct is absent from the male – it is not instinctual – but the maternal is instinctive within the female. They instinctively want to pick up the doll. They Know. Watching our own girls growing up – Sarah and I have so many photos of them ‘holding the baby’ Whereas the male is the one who is only awkwardly ‘left holding the baby’
And that maternal instinct finds its correlative in the role of women in the faith who faithfully pass on Life in the Tradition. It is interesting to note that in the latter part of the C19 in Russia, some of the saints of the Church gave themselves unstintingly to instructing women in the faith. When the Church then endured the horrific suffering under Communism, as we all know it was the women who bore the faith, who carried it within them and transmitted it. What after all is it to become a Christian than to be ‘Born Again’ . . . the question of Nicodemus at this assertion not perhaps without some weight . . .
It is an observable principal that whilst the male teaches the dogma of the faith, it is the woman who passes on the Essence of The Faith, its Being, The Mystery of Faith – in a far deeper instinctual way – the way of Mystery. At my daughter Rose’s wedding I made reference to those who were missing – including Sarah’s mother who kept faith alive in her family and passed it to her daughter, and then through her mother, Rose and indeed all of our children. Life passes through the female. The female is the life giver – so, rather than equality – compared with Joseph and indeed Any other Saint, The Church has exalted Mary – calling her ‘Theotokos’ – literally the one who bears God. The frail finite encompassing the consuming Fire of the ‘infinite’. Frail human flesh bearing the One who is a consuming Fire . . . Our God, incomprehensibly contracted to a span within a Woman.
In front of you you have two icons of Mary, The upper one is called ‘the Hodighitria’ – Mary points us to Jesus, she posts us to the Way, and Christ blesses his mother – As the Father speaks from Heaven ‘This is my Son, the beloved, Listen to Him, so Mary also directs us to her Son. At the wedding of Cana, ‘Mary said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’’ This icon is so significant that mariners of Old would place it in the bow of the boat The Virgin Mother pointing us to Jesus, ‘the Way’. Within her occurs the incarnation – the weaving together of heaven and earth – thus as as heaven is woven into Earth, so Jesus is The Way in toto.
Yet – Supremely it is Mary’s assent to the Will of the Father which is the gate of Salvation for all of humanity – for all of those, as Jesus calls us ‘born of woman’. Her assent becomes the human vehicle for the Life of God to enter into the World Incarnate – In flesh – and again when Jesus ascends to the Father who sends the Spirit – there on the day of Pentecost, St Luke names 1 woman present amongst the apostles – Mary the Mother of Jesus. (See the lower icon)
As Eve is named for she was ‘mother of all the living’, so Mary is the Eve of the New Creation – it is her ‘Yes’ which is the doorway for the life of God into the world, the Spirit of Jesus, that we might be born again. It is perhaps not going to far as some assent, that Mary is The Church – for the Church is the body of Christ – she is the one who within herself holds that body – she is the one who gives of her flesh that God might be born into the world. So in the second Icon as is customary we see Mary seated in the centre of the Church, our Mother.
Now it may have become apparent that I have been weaving together the story of Mary with that of Women in the Church, perhaps a note that we have lost. As The Church has forgotten the way in which the story of Joseph (and indeed many other men in the Scriptures who have to be asleep for God to work) puts the male out of the picture – so there has been in the Western tradition of the Church an approach to Mary which has divorced her from Womankind, and allowed the dominance of the male – to the point where as many say ‘it is a man’s world’. Neither Joseph not Mary conform to the way we are told the world is – which is a Sign to us that we are failing to See the World as it truly is – as God created it to be.
Deep in the story of Creation we come upon the story of the Fall. Why should the Serpent tempt Eve? Of course, if we wear the glasses modern thought has put upon us we would say ‘well here is an example of a Patriarchal text! The woman is being portrayed as weak, so Satan goes for the weak point’ This however is not how the Deep tradition of the Church reads it at all! No! The Woman is Receptive – that is at once her profound Strength and also the Potential of weakness. Of Glory, or of Shame. As the Ancient story of Achilles tells us, the weak point is always found in regard to the Strength.
Rather the Woman in the Story is portrayed as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. God’s Creative act culminates as he puts the man to sleep that he might do his most mysterious work – this is a Hidden thing. It is something which we can only begin to know in the Church in the Body of Christ. It cannot be known from outside of faith. The Serpent takes on Eve precisely because he knows that She as Woman is the source of Life for the human – both physical and spiritual. If he can deceive her, then all of humanity is lost. Eve receives the apple – she takes it into herself, and so the knowledge of Evil enters the world. How might this be redeemed, by the Woman taking Good, The Good into herself, in her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ Mary receives the Word of God into her being for the Salvation of the World. As Karl Barth put it, ‘here the Woman stands absolutely in the foreground.’ Yet this is hidden – it is a veiled truth for it is the stuff of mystery, the essence of Life and the feminine.
JRR Tolkien, a man versed in the deep myths and of course the Tradition expressed this well in the person of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings – she ruled Lothlorien with her husband Celeborn, and she is the one who gives to Frodo the Light which busts forth in the Evil darkness of Shelob’s lair. Frodo, the male, hesitates before her Mystery and offers the Ring to her, the Ring of Power. “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.
But she survives the test – the Ring is a thing of Evil and she will not receive it – lest the Old Magic be undone – and then ‘for all shall love me and despair’
This Truth is veiled. It is in the secret places that Jesus is woven together – it is the hiddenness of the humility of Mary that God comes into the world. It is only with the eye of faith that this young Jewish girl might be known as the Queen of heaven, it is not now public fact – the one who’s yes to God was for the Salvation of the World. And it is this profound mystery which is at the heart of the Eucharist – for because Mary received Life in and through her Yes to God, so the One born to her feeds us with His Very Life in the Eucharist.
We are in Advent – waiting for the bread of Heaven – which comes to us through Mary’s echoing the divine Yes – she is the one who calls Jesus to his Passion – ‘When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’’
In her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb comes into being.