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Signs of the Times  •  25 December 2018 •  No. 180
Abbreviated edition

Processional. The annual Christmas entrance into Bethlehem from the Latin Patriarch church. (3:11 video. Thanks, Loren.)

Above. Painting by Dan Trabue.

It’s Christmas night, and I’m sitting in a hotel room in Oklahoma City. Alone. My sole surviving aunt died yesterday, which required some hustling: last-minute travel arrangements and a passel of calls; planning a funeral (and finding a location); gathering up a large folder of legal documents in preparation for doing my executor duty; making arrangements to have her meager furnishings moved.

Even for a woman living one rung above destitution, there are an amazing number of documents involved. If the authorities tracked human rights with the same vigilance as property rights, the Kingdom would be near.

Mary Ruth is the last of the seven siblings on my Dad’s side. And this is the third funeral I’ve done in Oklahoma this year.

This one is the hardest though, since only one of my aunt’s three kids want to be here. They’ve had a hard road.

Christmas has a way of bringing family dysfunction into sharp relief. The tinsel and bauble and gift wrapping residue cover only so much strain.

It occurs to me, though, that the original Christmas Day was not a cheery one for the faith’s First Family. Nor is the Here-Comes-Sanny-Claus experience of the average family in the US normative for much of the world.

Remembering Joseph

A friend in Italy recently posted on Facebook a remarkable 15th century icon of the Nativity (see below). It would be uncommon, even in 21st century terms, because of its gender-bending depiction of the Holy Family.

Mary is shown reading Torah; Joseph is on the ground cuddling baby Jesus.

It makes me wonder if the artist (traditional iconographers did their work anonymously) was influenced by the Beguines , semi-monastic communities (initially in the Low Countries of Europe) of single women, beginning in the 12th century, who served the poor and marginalized, yet took no formal religious vows. Initially recognized by church authorities, their growing presence outside of male authorities, along with their theological creativity, led to repression.

Right: “Nativity, the Virgin reading,” 15th century icon, printed in “Besancon Book of Hours,” French School, in The Fitzwilliam Museum.

I have long been especially curious about Joseph. Mary is obviously at the center of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s true that she “submits” to the entreaty of the angel; but her submission is the stuff of revolt against the entrenched social order. Her surrender is an active collaboration; and, to every Herod—then and now—a national security threat.

Joseph, on the other hand, has a minor part in the story, and his presence on the stage is fleeting.

His reaction to Mary’s surprise pregnancy is magnanimous. The text says that he refused to publicly shame Mary for this cockamamie story of divine procreation. And then, planning to “dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19), he reverses course and follows the angel’s dreamtime instruction to wed Mary. Then, after another dream, he guides Mary and baby Jesus through the desert as refugees from Herod’s rage, taking shelter in Egypt. After yet another dream, he brings the family back to Palestine, this time to Nazareth, north of Rome’s closely guarded grip.

After that, except for an indirect suggestion of his presence with Mary for Jesus’ post-natal “purification” ritual (Luke 2:22), he disappears from history. Though not, since then, in the imagination of shipwrecked sailors and abandoned children, for whom he is a patron saint.

Below is a poem inspired by his thin but intriguing storyline.

§  §  §

Obscured brother
consigned to the margins
of Incarnation narrative.
Carpentry-calloused hands
now shield the shame
of sagging face, drooping, disgraced.
Chiseled lines prematurely sculpting
age in youthful countenance.
Thoughts of Mary smudge the heart
as tears smear the face.
Mary. Beloved. Betrothed. Betrayed?
Mary. With child. Whose? How, and why?

Joseph, companion in confusion
over God’s intention.
No multi-colored coat for you as for
your scoundrel namesake of old.
But who dares answer, much less complain?

Made redundant by the very breath of God.
What became of you?
Obedient to heaven’s outrageous instructions
amid Caesar’s assessment.
Unable to provide more than squalid accommodation
in your beloved’s night of travail.
Enduring embarrassed encounters
with wild-eyed shepherds and
strangely-clothed pilgrims
from obscure and distant lands,
each with incredulous stories of starry encounters.
Then hurtling toward Egypt—a land still haunted
by chained voices of ancestral slaves
—only steps ahead of Herod’s rage, the
Ramah-voice of Rachel weeping in the wind.

Did compliance with heaven’s intrigue
cause your undoing?
Was it more than your pride could endure?
Or did Rome nail you to one of its trees,
anonymously, sharing the sentence
of countless other Palestinian fathers,
left hanging in imperial ambition
years before the similar fate
of Mary’s fetal promise?
Did you map that road
for him as he did for us?

Loving Mary more than posterity itself.
A future eclipsed by divine drama,
a fate unrecorded, left to the imagination
of bath-robed youngsters in seasonal pageants.
But not forgotten in the heart of God
or, even to this day, in the prayers
of shipwrecked sailors
and abandoned children.

St. Joseph
Consort of Mary,
accomplice of God.
Chaperon the prayers of all
who disappear from history.
Supporting cast in the
larger story of redemption,
leaving no trace other than the faint
moisture of tears on some beloved’s face.
Vouchsafe the memory of such shadowed faces,
anonymous names, ’til their inscription in
the Lamb’s Book of Life.
—Ken Sehested

Confessing our faith. 200 religious leaders gather at the US-Meixco border, confronted by Border Patrol officers. (2:37 video. Thanks Shelley.)

Already a patron saint of Mexico, Canada and Belgium, in 1870, Joseph was declared patron of the universal church by Pope Pius IX, and in 1955 Pope Pius XII established May 1 as the "Feast of St. Joseph the Worker" to counter the Communists' May Day.

Hymn of praise. “Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose ‘er Blooming”) sung by The Gesualdo Six in the Ely Cathedral, England.  (Thanks Dick.)

In the news. “On December 6-7th, 2018, more than 300 people met in Bethlehem, consisting of Palestinian Christian church and organization leaders, Kairos Palestine leaders, people of faith, representatives of the Palestinian civil society, and around 100 international Christians representing the global Kairos for Justice movement and different church bodies.” —read the conference statement, “Hope Where There Is No Hope

State of our disunion. Among the victims of President Trump’s border wall hallucination is the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, where on any given day you can observe some 60 species of butterflies, the most diverse in the country.
        Recently “the US supreme court issued a ruling allowing the Trump administration to waive 28 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, and begin construction on 33 new miles of border wall in the heart of the valley—and right through the butterfly center.” Samuel Gilbert, Guardian

Just for fun. Kids find animal playmates at the zoo. (3:04 video. Thanks Jeanie.)

200th anniversary of the first singing of “Silent Night.” “The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song "Stille Nacht" in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph had worked as a co-adjutor. The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf.” —“Silent Night,” Wikipedia

Recessional. Country music royalty Kelly Clarkson, Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire team up to perform “Silent Night.”

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