More than 16 years ago, when I lived in upstate New York, I read about a special art exhibit coming from the Vatican to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. My first grandchild was a toddler, and co-incidentally living near Baltimore. So I flew down and my son, daughter-in-law, the baby and I all went to see the exhibit. One of the last paintings was huge – floor to ceiling in an exhibit hall – and it was a painting of the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus. We all stood there, in silence for a time, overwhelmed by both the size and the beauty of the artistry. We didn’t even notice how alert and wide-eyed my granddaughter was in her stroller until she called out, “Ma-ma!” She understood that painting as well as any of us. She saw love.
Tuesday I was at the nursing home, handing out Christmas prayer cards. The front of the card is a picture of a beautiful stained glass window, with Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus in the manger. One woman, who has great difficulty speaking, saw the card, and her face broke into a huge smile. She got excited, and began to speak unintelligible syllables. But in the midst of that, one word was clear: “Baby”. She saw love.
Love, particularly the love of a parent for an infant, is part of our instinct. We are “wired” to love infants, and most of us have an immediate need to coo at a baby, to smile and talk in a way that would be considered ridiculous in any other setting. I also think the image of the birth of the Christ child is deeply etched into our brains.
But I can’t read our Gospel today without wondering about Joseph. This is about the only time we have any insight into the character of this man, and I think it is worthy of a pause in the building excitement of the Christmas story. He chose to love a child that was not his own. By that time in the process of betrothal, promises had been made. Agreements between the families had been finalized. The only thing left was for Mary to move into Joseph’s home. It was not like the idea of engagement in our culture, where the ring is returned and it is ended, but there would have to be a divorce and a serious potential shame for the couple and the families.
Joseph had to have a sense that his bride was a very special woman, but any reasonable man would say upon finding his new wife with child, “This is no way to start a marriage.” He must have been reeling from the shock and disappointment, yet while he decides to divorce her, he still plans to protect her from scandal. It takes the intervention of an angel, a messenger of God, to explain and resolve the crisis. Did he still feel unsettled, confused; did he have lingering doubts?
Strangely, immediately what came to mind for me was that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was also a scandal. Crucifixion was designed by the Roman government to not only be torture, but public torture that was purposefully scandalous, to have a full impact on the people that they were under Roman rule, and opposition to the Romans would resort in terrible public punishment – and fear and disgrace for everyone.
St. Paul writes of the “stumbling block” of the crucifixion, something that might make the followers of Jesus might turn away. And on Easter morning, angels again appeared to explain what had happened to those terrified and heart-broken apostles.
It would be nice for the world to be like the stained glass windows, for the entrance of the Messiah into the world to be clean and neat and joyful, meticulously planned with baby showers and a nursery done in “Noah and the Ark” décor with little pairs of zebras and elephants and giraffe marching across the wall paper. But why would we think it should be that way? Real life is consistently hard and messy and dirty and deeply disturbing.
We are going to be singing “Away in a Manger”, “Silent Night”, and all those lovely carols we know. But the Gospel stories are stories of heart break, of fear, of lives being altered, of fleeing from homicidal Kings, of good people like Mary and Joseph willingly giving up their lives to a strange and demanding plan directed by God. We wrap up things from the stores up in boxes and put a bow on it and call it a gift. They unraveled their lives, taking on the consequences of following God, accepting all the strange twists and turns of the journey, and gave themselves to God as a gift.
Christmas began as a celebration of light –specifically, fire- to drive away the fears and dangers on the darkest days of the year. The ancient church understood the powerful image of light, and used it to teach us that Christ came into our world of evil and darkness like that huge bonfire in the long winter night. Candles were lit to illuminate ancient churches, but also were used to symbolize the presence of God. But light does not always mean what we see is pretty. Light also brings us images of terrible cruelty and suffering in this world.
Our candle this week is “Love.” Love is tender, gentle, warm. Love is also the trial of having to forgive, of sacrificing for another, of sharing not only out of our surplus, but out of our need. Love continues in the face of doubt and is the willingness to protect another. Joseph is the face of love. Love is not gender-specific; some of the strongest love can come from women, and the gentlest can come from men. But in our Christmas story, we find both in Joseph. Sometimes I think this is about all we know of Joseph so that we might understand the power of his background roll in God’s plan. And may God bless us all with the kind of love Joseph taught us.