Advent, Day 14: Joseph

LOOK: Saint Joseph by Antoine Alexandre Morel

Morel, Antoine Alexandre_Saint Joseph
Antoine Alexandre Morel (French, 1765–1829), Saint Joseph (after Jean Baptiste Joseph Wicar), 1787. Etching and engraving, 12 5/16 × 9 1/4 in. (31.2 × 23.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Poor Joseph. His fiancée is pregnant, and the baby’s not his. What else is a man to think, but that she was unfaithful? The news cuts him like a knife. Why is Mary making up this ridiculous story about an angel and an overshadowing and divine seed? I mean, really. A complex stew of emotions simmers within him—anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment, embarrassment, sadness, disgust, fear.

In a rare type of iconography, the eighteenth-century French printmaker Antoine Alexandre Morel, copying a painting by Jean-Baptiste Wicar (which I’ve not been able to locate), shows Joseph in this distressed state of mind, cogitating over next steps. He’s seated at an open window in his woodshop, a cityscape visible in the background, holding a blank scroll. I’m assuming this is the writ of divorce he’s considering drawing up against Mary (Matt. 1:19). Rather than bring her to court on the charge of adultery and subject her to (potentially capital) punishment (Deut. 22:21 prescribes death by stoning for adulterers), the Gospel-writer tells us, Joseph opts to “put [Mary] away privily,” discreetly ending their betrothal with the legal paperwork. Joseph doesn’t want a spectacle, and he doesn’t want retribution. Though Mary hurt him deeply, he still cares for her.

A sprig of lilies lies across Joseph’s lap, alluding to an ancient legend that he was chosen from among other men to wed Mary by the miraculous blossoming of his staff. That the Roman Catholic Church assigns Hosea 14:5—“The just man shall blossom like the lily”—as one of the readings for Joseph’s feast day, March 19, further establishes the lily as his emblem.

This scene takes place shortly before Joseph receives an angelic visit of his own, corroborating Mary’s account.

LISTEN: “Joseph, Who Understood” by The New Pornographers, on The Spirit of Giving (2007)

Rumors are flying
All over Galilee these days
And Mary, I’m trying to be cool
When my friends walk by ’em
They cannot look at me in the eye
Baby, I’m trying

You’re asking me to believe in too many things
You’re asking me to believe in too many things

I know this child
Was sent here to heal our broken time
And some things are bigger than we know
When somehow you find out
That you are stepfather to a god
Well, Mary, that’s life

But you’re asking me to believe in so many things
You’re asking me to believe in so many things

Oh Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Oh Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Tell me, is he?

You’re asking me to believe in too many things
You’re asking me to believe in too many things

Now, Mary, he is mine
(Mary, he is mine)
Mary, he is mine
(Mary, is he mine?)
Yeah, Mary, he is mine
(Mary, he is mine)

You’re asking me to believe in so many things
You’re asking me to believe in so many things

This song by the Canadian indie-rock band The New Pornographers (despite their unsavory name, their website is clean!) explores Joseph’s internal conflict in the weeks after learning of Mary’s pregnancy and her wild story of how it happened. The second stanza suggests that the angel has already appeared to him to affirm Mary’s integrity and that he has committed to staying the course with her. Yet still, he wavers between doubt and belief and continues to battle the shame of being publicly perceived as the cuckolded husband.

He asks repeatedly, “Is he [the baby] mine?” He eventually gets to the point where he takes ownership of his role as father, even though he didn’t contribute his genetic material. This isn’t how he wanted to build his family, but like Mary, he accepts the strange and terrifying calling.

The refrain (“You’re asking me to believe in too many things”) is voiced to Mary, but it also extends out to God. Joseph is asked to believe that the child inside his fiancée’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that the child is the long-awaited Messiah who will deliver Israel, that the child is in fact God enfleshed, that he and Mary are capable of parenting this God-boy, and that through all this newly charted territory, God will guide and sustain them, and everything will work out just fine. The magnitude of these asks is overwhelming! No wonder Joseph is reeling.

But thanks be to God that Joseph stepped forward in faith, bolstered, no doubt, by the faith of his partner and by the work of the Spirit in him. He didn’t understand it all, but he was willing to learn as he went, and to let God direct. What he did understand was that something bigger than his own dreams and life plans was at play here, and that something was worth following.

4 thoughts on “Advent, Day 14: Joseph

  1. For anyone who may be interested, I could not find the song on Spotify, but I found several performances of it on YouTube.

    Like

  2. I loved everything about today’s visual and musical offerings from Art & Theology. So relatable — I’ve often felt I was being asked to believe in too many things!!!!

    Sandy

    Like

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