Monday, December 16, 2013
Advent Four: The guy off in the corner
When I worked for a religious bookstore, we would assemble several Nativity sets for display (and hopefully purchase) to show our customers. We tried our best to offer a variety of Nativity sets from around the world, each beautiful in their own way, the product of hard working artisans getting a better deal through a Fair Trade cooperative.
I remember well the great debate the store staff had over one such Nativity set from overseas. We unboxed the set and realized that each piece was hand carved stone, and not one piece had a great deal of detailing. Thus, was this lump of stone a shepherd or a king? Poor Joseph, though, was the hardest to identify. He had no staff in hand or crown on his head. Instead, Joseph was deemed to be the only piece that did not seem to have any other purpose than to be “the odd man out” in the Nativity of roughly fashioned angels, sheep, shepherds, kings, and animals.
It can be an odd situation in life: being the honorable type that still goes without notice. The little guy tends to be lost in the shuffle, the guy who just does the right thing year round because that’s the way he’s wired. There’s no desire for attention or credit. No, that type just quietly makes sure that the good is taken care, regardless of the time or season.
Garrison Keillor celebrates that type of person in his ongoing stories of life in small town Minnesota. The typical Minnesotan in Keillor’s stories tends toward a near allergic reaction to pride, attention, or notice. The “look at me” tendency of our human nature appears to be replaced by the raspy voice of an old Lutheran waving off the cheers with a word of “Ah, shucks, guys, it was nuthin’, don’t ya know” and then he passes you the plate of lutefisk.
The story of the birth of Jesus could have ended before it started, primarily in the shunning of Mary, or worse, the type of punishment common in the day’s culture, which again, once described, goes beyond the “G” rating we tend to classify “Bible stories” under.
Yet it is Joseph and Mary alike who say “yes” to the call of God to bring into the world the Christ child. Despite the rigors of pregnancy and childrearing, despite the tenuous navigation of a culture’s purity understandings, this couple works through a difficult situation. The old spiritual sings, “Mary had a baby”, and the gospel of Luke would respond, "And Mary raised that boy right!"
For Matthew's gospel, Joseph gets his moment in the limelight, even for a guy who would prefer to be in the corner of the room. Yet his story is our story in a sense: hearing what God is doing in the world and being content to be part of a greater story.
As Matthew's gospel unfolds, we realize when an angel said, "Call him Emmanuel, or 'God with us'", no truer words have been spoken.