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Shovelling Muck: A Christmas Tale

December 23, 2007

Clay Nelson

Advent 4     Matthew 1:18-25


Santa’s sleigh is almost packed. Elves are quickly filling last minute orders sent by text, email and fax. On the other side of the secular-religious divided Mary is ready to give birth and yelling at Joseph between contractions to find accommodations NOW! Tomorrow the world begins celebrating Christmas. If there is something you want for Christmas, you can’t put off asking for it another minute.


Putting together a wish list can be hard work, but fun. It is an opportunity to dream. Even if we don’t find everything on the list under the tree it was fun to hope for it. Any disappointment felt can be soothed by what we did receive. But as we age we can begin to get a little nervous about what we ask for. We have learned there is truth in the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.”


Some of this truth is captured in today’s Gospel. Forget the story as history. Thinking of it that way blinds us to recognising the eternal truths the story tries to evoke within us. Don’t let it bother you that Joseph is a fictional character. He is a reference to an earlier Joseph, son of Jacob, who had dreams that saved Egypt and his family. Joseph, husband of Mary, is portrayed as a righteous man. Legend has always suggested he was a lot older than Mary, perhaps to explain his disappearance early on from the story. That he died is a much better explanation than he divorced Mary or that he was a dead-beat dad who deserted the family.


Being older he may have been pleased to be betrothed to a young woman. He may have felt it was a dream come true. Being righteous he must have felt his Christmas present was ripped from him just after being unwrapped when she turned out to be pregnant, and not by him. As a righteous man he was obliged to decline the gift. Otherwise he would have been unclean by association. It would have been unthinkable for a faithful person to do otherwise, but apparently not for God. In the first of several difficult dreams an angel explained that he should not reject Mary. Her situation was due to the Holy Spirit having conceived a child in her. When he awoke he must have sounded a little like a Tui beer ad – “Yeah, right. If I had a shekel for every time I heard that one.”


It is a classic dilemma. Society, your religion, your friends, your therapist, your own instincts tell you to walk away from a situation. And usually we do and maybe should. But there are time when for reasons not readily apparent we don’t. That is one subtext to this story. Like the proverbial boy shovelling through the manure pile in the barn believing that that there has to be a pony in here somewhere, Joseph believed the divine had to be somewhere in all this muck. His dreams, a channel to his unconscious, told him so. Perhaps like Matthew, he knew God worked through unlikely people – such as Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba. That put him in a sticky situation. His dreams told him that his hopes for a simple married life with a woman who would be acceptable to society were not to be. He could still have that but only by rejecting her, but in doing so could he be rejecting God?


I’m sure he was more than upset. He shouldn’t have to be in this situation. It wasn’t fair. This was a no-win situation for him from his perspective in time and place. And that is precisely the problem. We are caught in our time and place. We do not have the luxury or knowing in advance how our choices will work out. We have no control over most of life. It is what it is. If we have any control at all it is over ourselves and even that is an “iffy” proposition. Controlling our anger, frustration, fears, addictions, envy, jealousy, and selfishness are a full-time job and usually only partly successful and then for only a brief time.


Since the Joseph of our imagination is older, perhaps he is already resigned to the fact that life is not fair, filled with uncertainty and mostly beyond our control.


Perhaps, because he had lived life some, he had learned a little about how to deal with the way life is.


Perhaps, like Confucius he had learned the importance of family. The lessons we learn caring for our parents, partner, siblings and children make our heart larger. A larger heart allows for feeling empathy with more and more people – first with the immediate community and eventually with the entire world. Was it visitors from the East that taught him that holiness was inseparable from altruism. A fulfilled life was nothing more than nourishing the holiness of others, who in return would bring out the sanctity inherent in us. Confucius said this is accomplished by not doing to others what you would not want them to do to you. Did this life learning open Joseph’s heart to a young girl in trouble?


Perhaps a second wise man from the East, one we probably haven’t heard of, Mahavira, informed Joseph or perhaps he had learned it as a carpenter. Mahavira, who founded the faith of the Jains, was concerned with doing no harm. For Jains, non-violence is their only religious duty. Again empathy was the key, but not just with people but also with every living thing. Perhaps working with wood to make useful things helped Joseph know how intimately the world is connected. All must be respected. Violence against one was violence against all. Perhaps, it was this understanding that kept him from dismissing Mary, protecting her from being legally stoned by the righteous residents of Nazareth.


Perhaps a third wise man from the East, told him about the teachings of Gotama, the Buddha, or he simply learned the truth Gotama taught from all the sources of suffering that surrounded him in the backwater of his hometown. No matter where he learned it, he came to understand that there was a place within himself where if he put out the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, he would find both himself and peace. When in that place he was no longer driven hither and yon by conflicting fears and desires. He discovered a surprising strength that came from being correctly centred, beyond the reach of selfishness. This wisdom gave him the fortitude to dismiss the gossip and innuendo in the neighbourhood about him and his intended. It gave him the courage to question the established wisdom of his religion, and take her as his wife.


Tradition says there was a fourth wise man, but perhaps he wasn’t from the East, but the West. Living in a Hellenistic world it would not be surprising if the fourth wise man to inform Joseph was Socrates. Or perhaps he came to the following understanding in lively debates with those working in his shop or with his clients.


In a discussion about courage, Socrates argued that all the terrible things we fear are in the future, and therefore, unknown to us. He pointed out that it is impossible to separate the knowledge of future good or evil from our experience of good and evil in the present and the past. To be truly valiant we must acquire the qualities of justice, wisdom and goodness to move into the unknown. To have one virtue, all the rest must be mastered as well. It takes all those virtues to move through life in a way true to who we are.


Perhaps Joseph took to heart this message knowing that having the courage to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and from Bethlehem to Egypt and from Egypt back to Nazareth was only the beginning of the journey through this life. The most important journey we make is an interior one. We must interrogate our most fundamental assumptions. We must challenge all our certainties. We must question all that we have been taught. We must learn how much we do not know. When Socrates said, “The life that is unexamined is not worth living,” Joseph knew intuitively its truth. To fail to think deeply about meaning was a betrayal of the soul. To betray the soul was to betray God within us.


Perhaps this is why Joseph was able to suspend his disbelief and buy into the improbable idea that the Holy Spirit was guilty of impregnating his fiancée.


The Joseph I describe is like the one Matthew portrays. They are both fictional, of our imagination, but none the less that does not make either any less true. The Joseph I describe has the virtue of being a father who would pass on to his adopted son the wisdom of the ages. That may be why Matthew’s Joseph did not dismiss Mary. There was so much he wanted to teach her son. Doing so against all advice may have been his Christmas wish and his Christmas gift.


This sermon is deeply in debt to Karen Armstrong and her scholarship in “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions”, Anchor Books, New York: 2006.

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