St Joseph

, based on 2 Samuel 7.4-5,12-14,16, Romans 4.13,16-18,22, Luke 2.41-51

In our consumerist age, a child can be seen as something we select, and the conception of a child can be something we purchase. One company that sells conception, so to speak, is called ‘Man Not Included’. Now how exactly is a man not included? The products that are sold have been bought from male donors. Some man is necessary for the child’s conception. The implication then is that the man is not included in the upbringing of the child. This does reinforce the generalisation that the mother-child bond is unique and possesses a degree of exclusivity. The man, the husband and father, remains the perpetual outsider, and he can only reproach his wife for paying attention to the child at his expense, and he can only accuse the child ‘of always taking your mother’s side’.

It seems that St Joseph’s position was similar. And to compound it, he was not responsible for Jesus’s conception. Joseph truly is a ‘man not included’. This particular mother-child bond is especially strong, and there is a deep understanding between them. Joseph is not only an outsider, but on a much lower rung. Living with two people without original sin, if anything went wrong, the presumption surely must be that it was Joseph’s fault! This downgrading of St Joseph has affected Christian art. Mary’s perpetual virginity seems to require a similar sacrifice on Joseph’s part, and he is portrayed as an elderly widower, one whose virile powers have more or less fizzled out, a more credible partner for the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. But Joseph is more likely to have been a young man, and he is not one forced into continent chastity, but someone who is also invited by God to share in the great mystery of the Incarnation. Joseph truly is, as the Liturgy hails him, Mary’s ‘spouse most chaste’.

Because Joseph is not responsible for Jesus’s conception, there is a problem with what to call him. We could call him Jesus’s ‘foster father’, but every good father nurtures and nourishes his children. We might call him Jesus’s ‘adoptive father’, but Jesus is Joseph’s child, and you do not adopt your own children. He may be called Jesus’s ‘putative father’, but then he is what people suppose him to be, the father of Jesus. And then there is the modern term ‘non-biological father’, and although this comes close in terms of accuracy, the essence of fatherhood is surely more than just mere biology.

Although Joseph seems alienated from his family, and his fatherhood difficult to describe, the scriptural portrait of St Joseph is quite different. Joseph is ‘a just man’ who fears God, and is prompt and obedient in fulfilling what God asks of him. Joseph does everything well, and cares for and protects ‘the child and his mother’. It is Joseph who has to give Jesus his name, and it is through Joseph that Jesus inherits his lineage from David and membership of that clan. In his teachings and parables, there are hints of Jesus’s experience of Joseph’s fatherhood. When Jesus asks, ‘What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?’ (Luke 11.11-2), he surely has the kindness of his human father in mind as he tries to illustrate the goodness of his heavenly Father. Jesus notes the closeness of the father-son bond, for only the demands of the Kingdom could come in between and turn ‘father against son, and son against father’ (Luke 12.53). And above all, the name Jesus has for designating his heavenly Father, ‘Abba’, is the very name he would have used in addressing Joseph. And yet, the Abba, his heavenly Father, is the one—as Scripture says—‘from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name’ (Ephesians 3.15). So Joseph’s fatherhood is a finite, human reflection of God’s eternal fatherhood, and yet for the child Jesus, the human fatherhood he comes to know and cherish becomes an appropriate and fitting analogy for the heavenly Father’s love for the eternal Son. For this to be true, Joseph must have been a very good father, indeed the best of fathers.

With such a father, it is not surprising that Jesus follows in Joseph’s footsteps. He is called a carpenter (Mark 6.3), the son of a carpenter (Matthew 13.55). Like the good son of a good father, he follows in his father’s trade. This is true also of Jesus’s heavenly Father. He says, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’ (John 5.17). The trade Jesus receives is given to him by the Father: ‘for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me’ (John 5.36). So in working as a carpenter, Jesus shows that Joseph is his human father. And by preaching the Kingdom and working signs, Jesus shows that he has indeed been sent by the Father in heaven.

In today’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph find Jesus, Mary throws a veil over Jesus’s parentage. She says, ‘Your father and I have been looking for you’ (Luke 2.48). It is not for anyone else but Jesus to reveal his heavenly paternity, and so Mary calls Joseph his father. And here, Jesus gives the first hint that he will reveal the heavenly Father. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with the things of my Father?’ (Luke 2.49). His heavenly Father’s trade will occupy him eventually, but for now he will learn Joseph’s trade and be obedient to his parents.

There is, on the whole, a bad deal for fatherhood. It is seen as an optional extra, or as an ideal that fails so abysmally in reality. Fatherhood is an instantiation of the so-called ‘oppressive patriarchal system’. But what is wrong with patriarchs? One can love patriarchs just as much as matriarchs. There is nothing intrinsically evil about fatherhood. But many people have a bad experience of fathers, experiences of absence, betrayal, neglect and abuse, here where they should have found security, love and gentleness. It is here that St Joseph still has a role to play. Through his intercession and protection, those who are still hurting can find the hope of healing and peace. Through the good fatherhood of Joseph, we can come to understand the Fatherhood of God, when we, made sons and daughters in the image of Christ, can come in the Spirit to repose in the bosom of the Father, and there at last find perfect wholeness, perfect bliss.

Alive and Beautiful

Thursday week 5 in Ordinary Time, based on 1 Kings 11:4-13, Mark 7:24-30

One of the Dominican friars was being interviewed by a student newspaper in Edinburgh, and he was asked, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ And he answered, quite simply, ‘I don’t want to be remembered. I want to be resurrected.’ The remembering of our dead is the best a world that does not know Christ can muster. The pagans set up memorials, because the only thing you can leave the world is the memory of you before you depart to join the world of wraiths and shadows. Even today, people will say things like, ‘Our dead loved ones will live on in our memories.’ If that’s true, then they are the most pitiable – because the half-life they endure is dependent on our vague and muddled remembering.

Christ is no shadow, no wraith or ghost. He says to his disciples, ‘Handle me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ That is why we do not have relics of Christ himself, but only of things which came into contact with him: his burial cloths, the nails, the crown of thorns and the other implements of his passion and death. But the same is true of Our Lady. The early Christians, who avidly collected the bones and blood of the martyrs – the way we moderns might seek out a piece of the Berlin wall on eBay – the same early Christians never claimed to have a relic of the body of Mary. Instead they said that Our Lady was no longer on the earth, certainly not in her spirit, but not in her body either. Collecting the relics of saints and martyrs makes a lot of sense, far more sense indeed, than collecting pieces of the Berlin wall or signatures of so-called celebrities. The real celebrities, that is, those who ought to be celebrated, are the saints of Christ.

And when we celebrate Our Lady, we do not celebrate a memory. Mary is not a shadow. She is complete; she is alive and not dead, by the power of the Resurrection of her Son. She is risen too.

In his Gospel, Luke presents Mary as a box. To be precise, he portrays Mary as the ark of the covenant, as that box-like container which held the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone – famously depicted in the first Indiana Jones film.

The ark held three things (Hebrews 9.4), which are all symbols of Jesus. First, the Ten Commandments, on 2 stone tablets, the foundation of God’s covenant with his people. But Jesus however is the mediator of the new and eternal covenant (Hebrews 9.15). Second, it held manna, the bread from heaven with which God fed his people in the desert. But Jesus is the true and living bread from heaven (John 6.48-50). Third, it contained Aaron’s staff which budded and flowered, a symbol of Aaron being chosen as priest. But Jesus is the great High Priest, the Shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11.1). Just as the contents of the ark prefigure Jesus, so the ark itself prefigures Mary. The ark contained the old covenant, but in her womb Mary carried the New Covenant.

Just as the ark was overshadowed by the divine glory (Exodus 40.34), so Mary is overshadowed by the ‘power of the Most High’ (Luke 1.35). King David leapt and danced before the ark when it came to him (2 Samuel 6.12-6), and likewise John the Baptist leaps in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting (Luke 1.44). The old ark stayed for three months at the house of Obed-Edom, causing an increased fertility in that family (2 Samuel 6.11). Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1.56), and Mary’s pregnancy is the reason for Elizabeth herself having conceived. Faced with the ark, David said, ‘Who am I that the ark of the Lord should come to me?’ (2 Samuel 6.9). Likewise Elizabeth tells Mary, ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ (Luke 1.43). And finally, to cap it all, the first reading shows the ark in heaven, juxtaposed with the woman clothed with the sun, the woman who gives birth to the Word of God. Mary then is truly the new ark, the ark of the new and eternal covenant.

What happened to the original ark is a mystery. The psalms and Jeremiah know it is lost, and prophesies that it will be superseded with the coming of the Messiah (Jeremiah 3.16). A later legend has Jeremiah hiding the ark at Mount Nebo (2 Maccabees 2.4-8). Its loss is a great blow to the people of Israel, for the ark was the guarantee of the special presence of God with his people. Where the ark was, God was present there in a special way.

In Jesus, God is present in a truly special way. Because Jesus is God-made-man, and so in Mary, the ark of the new covenant, God is fully present in space and time. Mary is the guarantee of the truth that God has become a human being, that God is present to his people – and this time forever. Since the covenant of our salvation is eternal, it is fitting that the ark of this new covenant should not be lost as the old one was. The book of Revelation shows Mary associated with celestial powers: clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars. They represent an abiding testimony to heavenly realities; placed in the sky they act as witnesses forever to God’s eternal faithfulness. Just as they never pass away, Our Lady also now endures forever. Mary is adorned with them because she, as the new ark, is removed from the caprices and changeability of the earth, and placed as a celestial witness of the fulfilment of God’s faithfulness to his covenant.

It is interesting that St Bernadette, who saw Our Lady, always described her as a young girl, alive and beautiful.

Mary, through Christ the first fruits, has been glorified, made fully alive through the power of his resurrection. We, the other children of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.17), who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15.23), await his coming again in glory. He has not allowed this ark to be lost or destroyed, because the covenant of this second ark lasts forever. God has prepared a place of rest for the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12.6). And more than that, as both John’s gospel and the book of Revelation make clear, we Christians are given Mary as our mother – a living, bodily mother, and not a ghost or a spirit, not a memory but a resurrected woman. If, in the bible, God – through his angels and saints – praises Mary, how can we do any less, especially when He has given her to us, that we might hope still more? Hope with sure conviction, that we too will share in Christ’s resurrection.

Say the Black, Do the Red

Monday, week 2 in ordinary time (2), based on 1 Samuel 15:16-23, Mark 2:18-22

The things we say and do often go together. In fact, they have to go together. Our deeds are words acted out, and our words are our actions uttered. A dissonance between them is what we call hypocrisy. This we all recognise well enough, often we see it more clearly in others than in ourselves, but that is part of the essence of being hypocritical – seeing that everyone is a hypocrite apart from ourselves.

Now if the deeds do not match our words, it causes a great unease in us (at best), or worse, it corrupts and perverts us. If for example, we said to someone ‘I love you’ but never made any efforts to contact them or see how they are or prayed for their welfare, then something is wrong. It’s worse than hypocrisy. It seems we are liars. Or, more charitably, we could say that we are well-intentioned, but that our intentions are not matched by deeds. Which really is a nice way to say that we are liars, I think.

What if deeds and words mismatched each other a great deal? For example, if a carer abused her ward? Can someone who is an abuser really be called a ‘carer’ then? And as for the child who is being cared for, how can she or he be expected to feel secure or cared for, when they have come to live in fear and dread?
So our words and deeds really do have to match if we are to be human, and especially if we are a new creation in Christ, and part of redeemed humanity that hopes for eternal salvation. One of the most important public acts where words and deeds must match is the liturgy. The traditional way of phrasing this was the axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi – that the law of prayer is the law of faith. In other words, the two are inextricably linked, and one supports the other: as we believe, so we pray; as we pray, so we believe. This interdependence, this happy commingling is so important that tampering with the one will inevitably change the other.

The liturgy is a common battleground, for everyone has an opinion on the liturgy, even if it is to think it is of no or little importance. But the liturgy is not something we do. It is God’s work, or it is nothing, Pope Benedict reminds us. Our earthly liturgy is nothing more than our sharing in the heavenly liturgy that takes place all the time; the Body of Christ sharing in the offering of her Head, Christ himself, to the Father, in the Spirit.

That’s why it is so damaging to tamper with the liturgy, as unfortunately too many priests and liturgical committees do. Instead of the liturgy being about God, it becomes a celebration of the self, or of the community – and it stay there, at the horizontal level of our mundane, banal existence, and we are not transformed. But true liturgy is about something the community can never be of its own, could never bring of its own. It is about what only God can do.

That is why liturgical norms must be adhered to, and why Vatican II reminds us that no one can tamper with the liturgy off his own bat, not even a priest, the Council adds, probably knowing all too well the arrogance of many priests who have done so, and who have continued to do so, down to our own time. One blog puts it as ‘say the black, do the red’, that is, for priests to say the black words printed in the missal, and to follow the red words (the rubrics) as instructions on how to celebrate Mass. What could be simpler?

The first reading tells us, ‘For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’ As long as people strive to make liturgy more up-to-date or ‘relevant’, it will lose all relevance, and it will undoubtedly be tired and jaded. It is why we also need a new translation of the Mass in English! And desperately so!

Some of you may think, ‘How odd! Is he saying obeying rubrics about how many candles should go on the altar is going to save us?’ but that is to miss the point. The Scripture we heard says, ‘to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’. Obedience to holy mother Church, which is Christ’s body after all instituted by Him for us and the world, is more than any cheap thrill sought for in messing around with the Mass or prayer. Seeking to touch the mystery, to be caught up in the things greater than we are, is better than to lower everything down to our humdrum, graceless existence. Far better! It is after all the difference between heaven and hell, between God’s work and gracelessness.

Et Incarnatus Est…

17 December, based on Genesis 49.2, 8-10, Matthew 1.1-17

The great convert from Anglicanism of the 19th century, Cardinal Newman, wrote that if asked to select one doctrine as the basis of our Faith, ‘I should myself call the Incarnation the central aspect of Christianity, out of which the… main aspects of its teaching take their rise…’ God the Son united a human nature to His divine, so that, as a beautiful Offertory prayer puts it, ‘we may be made partakers of His divinity’.

The central importance of the Incarnation to our Faith is shown in our practice and prayer: the Angelus, rung three times every day, calling to mind Gabriel’s address to Our Lady, and her consent, and the great mystery of the Word-made-flesh. In the Creed we bow at the words: et incarnatus est… et homo factus est, ‘and he was made incarnate… and was made Man.’ Twice a year (or in the traditional rite, every time the Creed is recited) on precisely those feasts which more particularly call to mind the Incarnation of the Word, that is on the Annunciation and on Christmas (and I hope you see the link between the two!), we kneel at this recalling of the Incarnation, just as we genuflect in the Angelus at the words, ‘and the Word was made flesh’.

The central importance of the Incarnation is the reason Christians first began calling Our Lady ‘Mother of God’ – the unashamed declaration that Mary’s child is the Creator and Redeemer, of her and of the whole world. The early Christians began to see Our Lady, acknowledged truly to be Mother of God to be the touchstone of orthodoxy. St Germanus says, ‘Hail, thou fountain springing forth by God’s design, whose rivers flowing over in pure and unsullied waves of orthodoxy put to flight the hosts of error.’ And in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary we greet Our Lady, ‘Rejoice, because thou alone hast destroyed all the heresies in the world’.

Our Lady is said to destroy all the heresies of the world certainly through her powerful intercession, but also by simply being what she has been made by God’s grace, the Mother of God. What is implied is that all heresies and errors concerning the Faith begin ultimately with the rejection of the Incarnation. It need not be an overt rejection, but nonetheless any attempt to bypass the fact and the implications of the Incarnation become the seedbed of error and heresy.

In our own time we see that this is certainly the case. All the major confrontations, the grouses and campaigns, the perceived injustices – all of which are in error, spring from the rejection of the grace and mystery of the Incarnation. In 1968, when open dissent from the Church’s magisterial teaching first became fashionable (indeed, de rigueur to prove your progressive credentials), Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, on the regulation of human births, was opposed and derided. The acceptance of contraception, and the concomitant rejection of the Church’s teaching, is in the end a rejection of the Incarnation. By refusing to acknowledge the truth about ourselves as bodily creatures, many are refusing Christ’s grace – and more than that, they also reject the Incarnation by rejecting the teaching authority of the Church.

Since that time there have been other examples. The well-meaning but thoroughly mistaken campaigns for the ordination of women takes its starting point as equality, couched with buzz words like ‘full discipleship’. Full discipleship for Christians comes with confirmation, not ordination. Holy Orders is a sacrament no one has a right to, but to which some men are called. The idea that women could possibly be ordained implicitly rejects the concreteness of the Incarnation of Christ, not simply that the Word became flesh, but that He was a Man, this man, the man Christ Jesus. Here, ironically, the proponents of this error want the Pope to have more power than he claims, for Pope John Paul has already admitted that the Church lacks the power to ordain women.

Likewise the clamouring for homosexual relationships to be seen on par with marriage must in the end take the view that the body is external and not strictly essential to who and what we are. If homosexuality is understood as good or even holy, then the body is clearly not essential – it is as though two people are souls or angels, who just happen to be ‘trapped’ in bodies of the same sex. And if that is the case, then Christ’s humanity is not so essential either, and again it is the Incarnation that is emptied of its power and significance.

Every heresy no doubt begins with good intentions, and possibly with the best of intentions. But that does not make it right. And error has never made anyone happy in any lasting sense, nor has error ever set anyone free. Only truth can do that; the truth that is Christ can set us free, and ‘if the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed’ (John 8.36).

The long line of Jesus’ ancestry that confronts us in the Gospel sets the scene of the Incarnation for us. Christ did not appear out of nowhere, out of the heavens. He was born, born of a woman, born under the Law – born of a long line of human beings, saints and sinners. He does not come to make us comfortable in our errors, or to preach a Gospel that will settle us more firmly in our sins. No, He comes to shake us out of our ease with error and sin and death, becoming what we are so that we might become what He is. That is the whole point of the Incarnation as far as the salvation of humans is concerned. The Word became flesh, so that we might behold His glory, the glory as of the Father’s Only-begotten, full of grace and truth – the same grace and truth that sets us free.