Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Houseful of Virtues

The major feasts of the church are hard to preach about. After you preached on Christmas or Easter a dozen times or so, you feel you've exhausted everything you can say about them. I did not know what to preach on until yesterday. I'm doing the marriage preparation classes for the daughter of one of our winter people and since the couple are way up in the frozen North, we decided to do it by Skype. Skype had other ideas so we did it by cell and speaker phone, using materials I emailed to them. And while I was discussing the Biblical basis for marriage, it hit me. They were preparing for marriage, one of the biggest undertakings in the lives of most people. At the same time, it is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. And back in the waning days of King Herod's reign, a young couple was waiting for the birth of Jesus. And it wasn't just a big thing because they were going to be parents, it was also going to be rough because the bride got pregnant out of wedlock.

We tend to think of the Nativity as a Hallmark movie--heartwarming with a guaranteed happy ending. But actually, at the time, it looked like it was going to be a train wreck. Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In their society, betrothal was almost as binding as marriage. Still the couple was not to have sex. And if the groom found out that his fiancée was not a virgin, by the law of Moses, she could be hauled out of town and stoned. So when the angel announces to Mary that she is going to conceive and have a son, she had little reason to be joyful and every reason to be fearful. This might not just end her wedding; it could end her life!

Small wonder Gabriel has to tell Mary not to be afraid. This is scary news! As if taking the risky step of getting pregnant before the official wedding were not enough, the angel says that Mary is going to bear God's Son. Raise the divine Savior of the world? No pressure there! Taken altogether, it's enough to make the sensible response to this offer a big fat "No, thanks!" Why does Mary say "Yes?"

We really don't know. We can surmise that Mary is a devout Jew. But a lot of people who are happy to pray to God would get freaked out if he asked them to do something as big and risky as this. So on top of being pious, she is courageous. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, courage is the key virtue. You have to have courage to carry out any of the other virtues. An otherwise moral person lacking courage cannot be counted on to take a stand when it counts. You may be against discrimination but without courage will you confront those practice it? You may be for peace but without courage will make your stand against those who make war? You may be for mercy but without courage will you make your voice heard against a merciless system that society supports? Without courage your morality is just good intentions.

Mary, like all Jews, was hoping for the Messiah, God's Anointed One, to come and liberate her people. To be told by the angel Gabriel that God chose you to bear the Messiah had to be thrilling. But why couldn't God wait until their wedding? Why threaten her marriage and her life like this? Mary had to be wondering. Gabriel doesn't tell her why it had to be now. Her choice is to take it or leave it. Mary screws up her courage and trusts in God. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word." And when Gabriel left, Mary must have let out a long, trembling breath. What now?

Has the angel also visited Joseph, her fiancé, she wonders? Does he know about God's plan? Joseph has a reputation as a righteous man. That means he's very scrupulous in the observance of his Judaism. Having a pregnant betrothed will mess that up. They will either think Joseph jumped the gun or that Mary is damaged goods. He will not be respected in the village and local synagogue. In an honor/shame culture that's a lot to bear. Joseph could denounce Mary and let her be stoned to death. But he doesn't want to. That means that, even if the marriage was arranged, as virtually all of them were then, Joseph cares about Mary. He may even love her. Instead he is thinking about divorcing her quietly. In a small village like Nazareth, that will probably mean she must be sent away so that her secret doesn't come out. Better than death for her, but still it means she will leave her family and live as a fallen woman, unless she pretends to be a widow. Widows with children were the poorest and most powerless members of Jewish society. So Mary is embracing a choice that will probably end in death by stoning or disgrace and poverty. She is truly a courageous woman. No wonder God chose her.

Joseph, we may deduce, is a decent guy. He could have vented his rage and disappointment on his pregnant fiancée by having her honor and her life torn from her. He chooses not to. He's merciful. Still, if Mary told him she was bearing God's child by the agency of the Holy Spirit, he obviously isn't buying it. He's probably feeling a mixture of anger, jealousy and sadness. He falls into a troubled sleep and has a dream. An angel tells him the truth. He awakens and chooses to be thought of by the community as a horny guy who couldn't wait. And that takes courage, too. He's going to raise a son whose origins the whole village will gossip about. He will never be considered quite the upright man he used to be. But he is willing to live with that.

Both Mary and Joseph are just ordinary people who, when asked to do extraordinary things by God, find the courage and faith to do so. And I think we may deduce some other virtues they possess.

They must have had hope. They are poor people living in an occupied country. Their foreseeable future is a hard and possibly short life together. Living to 50 is considered achieving a ripe old age. Joseph is a builder, then as now a dangerous profession. Mary could die of disease anytime she delivers a baby. The taxes they pay, levied by the Romans, collected by corrupt collaborators, are exorbitant. Yet they dare to hope that God will act through them, that they will rear the Messiah. Granted, the appearance of an angel is dramatic, yet afterward, they must have asked themselves if it were real or a fever dream, an hallucination. Because faced with the hard facts it must have been tough to cling to the words of an otherworldly being. But they had hope, the future tense of faith. They believed God's promise of salvation and a better world. When obstacles came up, they must have encouraged each other with "Remember what the angel said?" and grasped each other's hand and stepped towards a future the world told them was just a fantasy.

They must have had love. Had either of them embarked on this task out of nothing but duty, they would have grown to resent each other. Yet Luke tells us they were still together 12 years later, going to Jerusalem with Jesus in tow. The gospels tell us they had other kids, Jesus' brothers and sisters. True, it could have been one of those loveless marriage but if it were, where did Jesus learn of human love?

Jesus doesn't come across as someone scarred or disillusioned by growing up in a passionless or dysfunctional home. He isn't rigidly righteous or recklessly rebellious or anxious to please, the usual traits of kids raised in a fractious household or by emotionally distant parents. He's tough when it's appropriate, forgiving when it's needed, tender with the fragile, courageous when faced with injustice and cruelty. Jesus is the best adjusted person in the Bible.

And some of that has to be due to the environment he grew up in, to the parents God chose for him: Mary, the fiercely courageous girl, ready to face disgrace or worse to fulfill God's plan; Joseph, decent, merciful, self-disciplined, thick-skinned in the face of public opinion. Even when Mary was expected to deliver and Joseph has to go to Bethlehem to register some old family plot of land the Romans wanted to tax, they don't split up. He doesn't leave her with her folks while he takes care of business; she doesn't insist on staying home where she knows she'll be attended to by family and friends. If he's going to traipse 80 miles south, she was going with him. Whenever and wherever the baby came, they would be together.

I'm not saying the trip was a pleasant one. I'll bet poor Mary felt every bump of that road transferred to her sore bottom by way of the donkey's spine. I'll bet Joseph felt even more helpless and useless than most expectant fathers when Mary went into labor in a cattle stall. But they got through it. And after that it was just a matter of raising Jesus to be a good Jew and a good man. And they did it. They lived and loved together till death parted them. And the world, through Jesus, was the richer for this humble hardworking couple who said "Yes" to God and meant it.

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