Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

(from the Bowyer Bible, illustrated by Jacques Stella, 1756)

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

--Collect for the Fourth Week of Advent, Book of Common Prayer, page 212

Matthew 1:18-25:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I always think of the story of "Joseph's side of the Nativity" as being a story about "everything turned upside down in terms of failed expectations." So what in the world does a story where it seems Joseph's expectations were utterly shattered have to do with the request in our collect to "purify our conscience?"

The news of Mary's pregnancy must have been a giant wad of "failed expectations" for Joseph. It had to be a pretty ugly day for Joseph when Mary showed up and told him she was pregnant, and it had to get uglier when she relayed an even more impossible story of the conception of this pregnancy.

This gets told in a way more deadpan manner in Matthew than what my imagination tells me about this situation.

I would not be surprised if Joseph called Mary every kind of sleazy epithet in the book, at first. It was enough to be stunned with "I'm pregnant," but the rest of her story must have sounded like the biggest "cock and bull" story ever invented. It had to literally be an insult to his intelligence. I sort of imagine this angry eruption, Mary bursting into tears because Joseph obviously doesn't believe her, and then perhaps Joseph softened a little bit. After all, she was very young. Maybe she didn't even know what she was doing when she got pregnant. She could have fallen to some smooth operator's charms and was, in reality, a victim. Perhaps she was raped. After all, the Romans took what they wanted in those parts of the world in those days.

It's also important to remember that, in those days, marriage was a contractual arrangement between the groom and the bride's parents--and let's be real, at this point, Joseph didn't get what he had negotiated for with Mary's parents (history and legend tells us their names were Anna and Joachim.) I am almost certain part of the guarantee on this trade was "a virgin." After all, that is how people truly knew the firstborn was "theirs." So I imagine there were also some pretty tense conversations between Joseph, Anna, and Joachim. The result of those tense conversations was that Joseph would simply keep this all as quiet as possible. There was probably some trading back of money and possessions. After all, the punishment for adulterous women was death by stoning. Anna and Joachim (and Mary) would always have to live with an uneasy trust that Joseph would not ever go to the authorities. Ever. What if he got drunk one night and got an angry streak to it? What if he really WAS the father and was putting on a show because she didn't please him? Mary told them the father was the Holy Spirit, but I imagine that tale was hard for EVERYONE to believe, except Mary.

Then there was simply the raw psychological pain Joseph must have experienced. He must have glared at every guy he'd ever seen around Mary and thought, "Was it YOU?" That had to really eat at him and burn him up with anger and jealousy and righteous indignation that someone else took what he had not only paid for, but longed for.

He must have dreaded the potential embarrassment. Mary's pregnancy would be showing soon, if it wasn't showing already. Everyone in town would know Joseph had been ripped off, or played for a fool. Maybe friends of Mary's family would no longer want him to do carpentry work for them--his business could suffer. He probably felt the shame of potential embarrassment of behaviors in other people that he could not control.

I'd even bet money he didn't totally buy into his dream at first--Matthew only said he did as the angel told him. Just because we do as you're told doesn't mean we are totally on board. I bet at first Joseph's dream must have seemed crazy to him. But something told him to "keep on keeping on" with the plan that was outlined in the dream, so he did. But it all turned out ok, eventually. Oh, not at first--there was the untimely birth in a manger, and the flight to Egypt--but probably, eventually, Joseph settled back into a relatively normal day-to-day life with his family. (Well, at least as normal as it must have been rearing the Son of God. I'm sure there were lots of things he didn't expect there.)

Joseph's side of the Annunciation is a story about doing that whole business of "doing the right thing" because it's right--and the comfort in doing the right thing isn't always there at first. It's about doing what's right for your own peace of mind, even in the face of failed expectations. My guess is what made Joseph "come around" to signing on to this mess wasn't the fear of an angel in a dream. My guess is when you cut to the middle of the story, he loved Mary, and he simply couldn't bring himself to leave her cut adrift in this pregnancy. He probably wasn't sure what this love meant at that point, but despite all this mess, it did not go away.

We all have things in our lives we did "beyond ourselves" because we loved someone else. The story of each of those things in our lives are often very raw stories. They don't always have happy endings. But if we are open to the possibility they have peaceful endings--that we are eventually at peace with those decisions--our heart changes. Our capacity to love, to endure, and to be patient with an eventual ability to look back and say "You know, it was all for the best how it worked out," becomes bigger and bigger. It transforms us.

In that peace, our conscience is purified--just like in the collect. The nipsis is that we become awake to the concept that even within the deepest bowels of our pain and suffering and embarrassment and humiliation, there is clarity, grace, and peace.

Only over time does it all come together, and only if you are open to the possibility it can.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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