This week we are featuring one of our Hildy Tails. This series of essays were composed last year for our Sustainers Circle. They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to entertain and doesn’t normally feel constrained by conventional story structure . . . or grammar, in general. She lives by the motto that “all stories are true; some actually happened.” We wanted to share them with you, our wider Abbey community, to give you a small monkey-sized, humorous perspective on some biblical passages and stories of the saints.
I’m Hildy (Abbey of the Arts’s monk-ey mascot) and that opening phrase is Irish for “Happy Christmas” (Merry Christmas, for Americans) . . . which is appropriate as you’re about to read my take on a Biblical story that is central to the Christmas story.
I love the Biblical stories about baby Jesus, partially because I love the Christmas seasons so much, but also because the stories are so well known that most of us don’t think about too often . . . or at least not too deeply . . . and so, ironically, are not very well know after all. If you’re like me, you tend to just accept it and get on with our holiday preparations. But not this year!
Today, I’m going to talk about Matthew’s version of the Infancy Narrative (the one with the magi and the star, not Luke’s version with the shepherds). Don’t panic! I’m going to skip over the long genealogy. (I said it was a bit too boring for one of my essays here and John got a bit defensive and went into a long explanation as to why its important . . . No disrespect to the Holy Family Tree, but we’re skipping it today. Besides, all that family stuff was last month’s theme and were moving on.)
Right. So the story starts off simply enough: a woman is engaged to a man. All very traditional and straight forward and . . . sorry to say . . . dull. But then PLOT TWIST: the woman is pregnant “by the Holy Spirit.” The man tries to call the whole thing off quietly, not for his own sake but for hers. It’s a (and I’m sorry if this sounds blasphemous) bizarre situation that Joseph finds himself in (doubly so for poor Mary) and his very calm and compassionate response is equally bizarre . . . and beautiful.
What’s weird, isn’t that the marriage didn’t go according to the norms of the day (that happens all the time, all throughout history). And it’s not weird that Joseph tried to do the right thing and not expose Mary to public scorn (people tend to try to do the right thing and Joseph is described as being “a righteous man” so of course he isn’t vengeful or mean about any of this). No, what’s weird is *how* Joseph is informed about what’s going on, with the Holy Spirit and all the Messiah stuff.
An angel tells Joseph that the child in Mary’s womb is special, by way of a dream. The Annunciation and Mary being told that she’s pregnant gets a lot of press (and rightly so), but Joseph’s encounter with an angel . . . crickets. He’s regulated to being an extra (or “background performer” as they’re now called) in a story where he otherwise would’ve been the leading male. He doesn’t even get any lines! It’s not like he was unable to speak; there’s a few people in scripture who can’t speak and that’s pointed out. Here . . . nope.
I mean . . . obviously Mary’s vision of the angel Gabriel is the one that starts the whole ball rolling and is therefore more significant. And Mary does carry the Christ child for nine months. And it’s Mary that goes through labour. And, let’s face it, Mary’s role in all this is WAY bigger than little auld Joey’s. But still . . . it’s not insignificant.
It’s Joseph’s family tree (yes, the one I insisted on skipping over earlier) that’s the reason the Holy Family goes to Bethlehem where Jesus is born in accordance to the prophecy. And it’s the messages received AND BELIEVED by Joseph that help the Holy Family escape to Egypt before they are killed by the jealous King Herod.
And it’s Joseph’s trust in the messages he receives that I want to focus on here. He had every reason to leave Mary, who was pregnant by someone (or in this case something) other than by him. And even when he believes the angel in his dream, he still would have had reason to step away. If God was involved with creating the child, surely a lone man wasn’t needed to raise or care for the child. And what about the sheer magnitude of the responsibility of raising such a special child? I think I can honestly say that I’d at least think about running as far away from all that as possible. And yet, Joseph’s “yes” to God’s calling is lost, overshadowed (rightly or wrongly?) by Mary’s “yes.”
But as far as the story is concerned, Joseph (much like Mary) doesn’t balk at the challenge . . . no, invitation . . . to be part of something so great. Sure, Joseph is a descendant of King David and can trace his lineage all the way back to Abraham (Alright, John! You were right, the family tree thing is important), but Joseph is so far removed from all that royal blood to be insignificant. He’s just a carpenter, a simple man, humble and righteous.
He just wants a family of his own. And when that family turns out to be different from what’s expected, from what’s considered “traditional” . . . he accepts it all, with grace and dignity.
How has your family, your life, turned out differently (and perhaps far better) than you planned or expected?