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Joseph the Righteous

Lectionary Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

By Elizabeth Morris Downie

 

Readings for Advent 4, Year A, Dec. 19, 2004

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16 - 18
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

 

In the iconography of the birth of Jesus, Mary gets full play: Madonna and Child, front and center, perhaps the only distinct figures. Others are relegated to background status, shepherds, Magi, angels, even Joseph. But Matthew's gospel puts Joseph in the foreground. What does Joseph have to say to us today?

Joseph faced up to the fact that the girl he had promised to marry was pregnant, and not by him. . . Today, unwed mothers are common, and pregnant brides are not exactly rare. But for Joseph, the “righteous” thing to do, according to law and custom, would have been to dismiss Mary, refuse to honor the commitment he had made, and condemn her to life-long shame.

Most importantly, I think, he tells us not to take the easy path of pretense and denial. Joseph faced up to the fact that the girl he had promised to marry was pregnant, and not by him. It's hard for us to imagine the full impact of learning such a fact in that society. Today, unwed mothers are common, and pregnant brides are not exactly rare. But for Joseph, the “righteous” thing to do, according to law and custom, would have been to dismiss Mary, refuse to honor the commitment he had made, and condemn her to life-long shame. He could have felt very self-righteous doing so.

Joseph's righteousness, however, was deeper and more profound than simply observing laws and customs. It was a righteousness that grew out of God's presence in his life, a righteousness that allowed him to hear the angelic voice of his dream and obey its commands. As a righteous man, he could look directly at the reality which now confronted him, see it and all its implications fully, and do God's bidding without regard for his own reputation. He could accept the angel's word that the child was of the Holy Spirit; he could accept the duty, usually assumed by the mother, of naming the baby.

Matthew's narrative doesn't record a single word from Joseph, in marked contrast to Luke's record of Mary's “Let it be with me according to your word.” Joseph just acts upon the revelation received in his dream.

Can Joseph's clear view of reality call us to open our eyes and act upon the revelations we have received? Too many Christians in America today are mired in pretense and denial. We pretend that everything is going to be OK when the crescendo of evidence that all is far from well grows to a deafening level. We effectively deny the reality of what we have allowed the economic and political structures of our country to become. We do our best to apply band-aids to the wounds right under our noses, with our food banks and other charities. But we refuse to see the systemic problems, and we refuse to address them. We would have to risk our comfortable positions in society, to give up what we have come to believe is ours.  

Clearly the most dangerous of our coping mechanisms is denying our own roles as Christians in the public arena. When progressive Christians remain silent, there are no religious voices in the public arena except those of the far Right, and we are seeing the havoc they are wreaking in the lives of our least affluent sisters and brothers–under the banner of “moral values.” We cannot remain wordless; we must speak up with the clear sight of Joseph and the willingness to risk all that Mary offered to God. Like these parents of the Christ Child, we look for the coming of the Commonwealth of God, and like them we must be ready to act.

 

The Rev. Elizabeth Morris Downie is president of the board of the Episcopal Women's Caucus . A long-time leader in the struggle for justice and inclusion in the church, she has also served in leadership for Associated Parishes for Liturgy & Mission, among other organizations. Elizabeth lives in Fenton, Mich., and may be reached by email at edownie@voyager.net .