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Monday, December 16, 2013

Joseph as "primary catechist" of the Word

A few years ago on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a homilist at St Anne offered a keen insight on today's gospel, probably more eisegetic than exegetic, but there was an echo of truth in it, and it struck me strongly enough that I wrote it down. The insight was that in that gospel, in which the just Joseph, keeper of Torah, discovers the pregnancy of his betrothed Miryam and sets aside the prescriptions of the law out of love, we have a picture of the man from whom Jesus learned how to interpret the law. In Jesus’s later dealing with the law, we see him take similar positions. There is a lot in all of that, and I’d like to try to explore it a little bit.

The homilist’s tack reminded me of the preaching and teaching of the late Fr. Lucien Deiss, C. Ss. P., a theologian, scripture scholar, and peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Deiss was also a fine musician and missionary, his music was everywhere for the first couple of decades after Vatican II, and I had the great honor of working with him on a number of recordings made by him for North American Liturgy Resources in Phoenix through the 1980s and 1990s. Fr. Deiss wrote a book in 1994 called Joseph, Mary, Jesus, in which he investigated some of this insight. He very often spoke of his devotion to Mary, and imagined that in the household, Mary might have used some of the aphorisms and phrases that we have come to know as having come from Jesus. He might have “picked them up at home,” as we say. “As my mother used to say,” or “as grandma used to say” are ways we will preface an axiom or pithy saying. Deiss’s suggestion was that some of what we know of Jesus might actually have originated with Mary or Joseph, and he picked it up at home. Deiss would have been the first to say that this is purely conjecture; he was completely humble about thinking this way. But in your own experience, doesn’t it make perfect sense? My grandfather used to call any old acquaintance “pal o’ my cradle days,” and the music of that phrase is with me even today, and I use it sometime. “Cripes Christmas” is another one, this one I got from my mother. I say that all that time. Of course, I’d like to think that it wasn’t profanity or mild oaths ("vipers' brood!" "white-washed tombs!" Raca!) which Jesus picked up from Joseph, but as long as it wasn’t sinful, what’s the harm? ☺ The point is just that we pick things up from home; Jesus was from a home, and it’s reasonable to imagine that he picked things up there, maybe even some of his best lines with the ring of the folk aphorism to them. I’m thinking of things like, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” or “many are called, few are chosen.” You can just hear someone’s grandma saying those things commenting on the way the world is; in this case, maybe it was Jesus’s own parents who used those phrases, or passed them on to him. 

About 20 years ago, a friend of mine and I wrote a one-act musical about the annunciation which included a bit of the courtship of Joseph and Mary. In this musical piece, called Song of Mary, we used that conceit several times in the dialogue and in songs, in which words which the audience already would associate with Jesus’s preaching would have been part of the banter and conversation of his parents-to-be. I know that I did this with Mary, and now I wish I had done it with Joseph as well, because this homily made me think that, yes, here in the actions of Jesus’s (foster) father, we see love ameliorating the law. The law called for the stoning of a betrothed woman discovered to be pregnant before living with her husband; Joseph, before even being visited by an angel, being just, that is, like God, decides to divorce her quietly, thus being able to live with himself (keeping Torah) and showing mercy to his betrothed. What happens after the angel’s visitation and the annunciation to Joseph is part of the gospel, and what we hear in Sunday's liturgy.

As a tekton, or a tradesman, a carpenter, in the Galilean countryside, Joseph would probably have done work not only for his kinspeople and other townsfolk, but also worked on larger jobs, barracks and machines for the Roman occupying force, or commercial buildings and furnishings for some of the busier towns nearby. He would have known enough Greek to speak to other non-Jewish contractors and artisans, and possibly have gleaned some of their folk wisdom as well. Though a “just man,” and by that, the scripture means to indicate that he kept the Torah and followed the law prescribed for pious Jewish men, he may have come to realize something about how non-Jews and Jews were much alike in ways that mattered. Being in Galilee and away from Jerusalem and the cultic center of Judaism, a generosity of spirit about other people from other lands might have been something that was part of his milieu. As the father of Jesus, this open-hearted attitude toward outsiders could have helped shape Jesus’s openness as well.
In our General Directory for Catechesis, we Catholics make the astonishingly simple but barely comprehended statement that parents are the primary catechists of their children. Apples, we believe, do not fall far from trees. No matter what they hear at church, from priests, sisters, catechists, anyone, children are going to learn their faith, or not learn it, by what they observe their parents doing. How parents live, what they say, how they treat other people, how much a part of their outward lives God is, this is how children learn first about God. Other catechesis will help them draw out meaning, articulate inner truths, and get the “facts” about believing from the centuries of tradition from which we draw, but it is in the daily life and relationship of Mom and Dad that children learn their faith. How can we believe it is any other way than that with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus? There came a time, clearly, when Mary became the disciple, later in Jesus’s life. But early on, the eternal Word listened to his parents and started to hear in their exchanges and see in the patterns of the daily living the echoes of the Torah, and the will of the living God. 

One Sunday a year, at least, it is good to hear about Joseph, the just man, and to imagine that he, too, was a profound influence on his little boy who became the Christ of our faith. Joseph’s attentiveness to Miryam/Mary in the precarious need of her pregnancy, his respect for the Torah, and possibly even his tolerance of and respect for the traditions of his diverse neighbors, all might have shaped the faith of the Messiah, laying a foundation for some of the hallmarks of our tradition. Perhaps because of Joseph the Just, Jesus's "abba", a blind man was cured on that sabbath, a centurion's boy and a Canaanite woman's daughter were healed, an adulterous woman was saved from stoning, and, two thousand years later, we know the answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”

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