A Big Ask

My thoughts over this busy month of Advent have naturally focussed on the Christmas story, and the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in what was probably not December but the spring of the year 4BCE. This week I have zoomed in on Joseph, the husband of Mary, since that was the theme of our sermon this week, from one of our young folk, who did a very good job.

We aren't told much about Joseph in the gospels. Luke's nativity stories name him but present him as quite passive. Matthew tells us more, and especially about the two dreams in which Joseph was asked by God to act with extraordinary faith. In one he needed to accept that his pregnant fiancee Mary had not been unfaithful, and that her baby was part of God's plan of salvation - quite a big ask. In the other, he was told to return from Egypt to his home town, not knowing whether King Herod's decree, that all the boys under two be executed, was still in effect. Again, quite a big ask. Clearly Joseph was a man of faith.

According to Matthew 13:55 Joseph was a "tekton," and Mark 6:3 states that Jesus himself was a tekton. Tekton has been traditionally translated into English as "carpenter", but it is a more general term that meant craftsman, and could cover makers of objects in various materials, including metal. It could even refer to a building contractor; historians have speculated that Joseph and perhaps Jesus too might have traveled daily to work on the rebuilding of nearby Sepphoris, a Hellenised city a few km north of Nazareth. The terms 'carpenter' and 'son of a carpenter' are used in the Jewish Talmud to signify a very learned man, and it seems that these craftsmen's knowledge of maths and science meant they were among the best educated in village life. Israel is a dry rocky land with little local timber, but the association with woodworking is strongly present in early Christian tradition. Justin Martyr wrote that Jesus made yokes and ploughs, and the likelihood that Jesus was talking about his father's work when he mentioned these items is intriguing. But after the Nativity stories and the incident in the Temple when Jesus was twelve, we hear no more of Joseph. Had he died? Many commentators think so; if Joseph had left Mary widowed, it goes part of the way to explaining why Jesus spent fifteen-plus years working at his trade in Nazareth, before embarking on his preaching and pastoral ministry at age 30.

Given that we have so little of Joseph's history in the gospels, it is not surprising that early Christians filled the vacuum with tales of his lineage and family background. Catholic and Orthodox Christians give substantial credence to details provided in an apocryphal document from the late second century called the Protevangelium of James. It is one of several surviving "Infancy Gospels" a genre which developed, it seems, to satisfy the hunger of early Christians for more detail about the early life of Christ. In Greek such an infancy gospel was termed a protevangelion, a "pre-Gospel" narrating events that occurred before those recorded in the gospels. Scholars tell us these tantalising stories are unlikely to have been written by their claimed author - James the brother of Jesus - but archaeologists like Father Bargil Pixner, a Benedictine monk and tourguide who specialised in the holy sites of Jerusalem, believe they preserve authentic family traditions. Their themes certainly had a strong influence on the iconography and liturgy of the ancient Christian church.

The Protevangelium of James tells us that Joseph was a widower, father of six children, and resident of Nazareth, who was asked by his relative Joachim to take guardianship of his virgin daughter Mary (Miriam). Joachim, who is not mentioned in the Bible, was said to be descended from the royal line of David, while his wife Anna’s lineage was that of the priestly families. This devout couple, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, were childless until they miraculously conceived a child in their later years. Joachim and Anna vowed their child Mary to the Lord, and left her from age three at the Temple, like Samuel, in the care of the priests; there is some historical evidence of a cult of virgins who served the Temple priests in Jerusalem, in exchange for a thorough education in Torah. She supposedly stayed there until age twelve when the onset of puberty meant she would breach the protocols of ritual purity. There is a story then of Joseph being marked out from other Natzorean widowers by a rod that budded forth a dove, revealing that Joseph was to take Mary as his wife. He was at first unwilling but took her in obedience to the will of God, respecting her vow to remain a virgin. We know the rest of the story from the gospels. The material of the Protevangelium is, of course, legendary, and is thought to have been written in support of the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity, and to explain how the brothers mentioned in the New Testament were half-siblings of Jesus. This is called the Epiphanian Theory after Epiphanius who advocated it in the fourth century, but it existed long before that . It was probably, I learned to my surprise when on study leave at Tantur Institute in 2000, the majority opinion in the early church. Whether or not, Joseph and Mary had a "normal "married life (as Protestants believe) or Mary did retain her virginity all her life (as most Catholics assert). its clear that by agreeing to still marry her, Joseph was taking on a Big Ask.

All this about Joseph has been in my thoughts this week as I considered one of our Sunday preacher's questions - "what is God asking you to do, in faith, for him?" Its clear that sometimes when we agree to do something for God, it ends up being a lot more complex and demanding than we expected. A case in point from a conversation with a pastor of a nearby church this week:
They had taken Christmas gifts and an invitation to services around to local homes this week. One team came back with a story of a flat of young adults who asked for help with their house being seemingly haunted. Some very weird things not explicable by science had been happening; I won't describe in detail as that would be giving undue honour to them. Psychics had come and given advice but no real help. Some of the pastors went to pray and cleanse the house. They found four terrified twentysomethings desperate for truth. The Christians agreed to pray a prayer of exorcism but my friend - a gifted evangelist- made it clear that they were not going to leave it at that. They wanted to explain who this Jesus was, in whose name they would be praying. Four came to faith that evening, and the prayers of cleansing in Christ's name were offered. From that night, no more paranormal events have occurred. "Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world." We don't know what those young people will do about following Jesus, but lives have been changed and a seed of faith has been planted.

In light of my Advent prayer journey this week, that story made me gasp. What would I have done? What is God asking me to do? What faith do I exercise in confronting evil? and what faith do I exercise in offering the gospel challenge? These issues were a big ask for that local ministry team, but they, like Joseph and Mary, responded in obedience and faith. And their availability to God, like that of Joseph of Nazareth, has changed lives.

To Chew Over: "What is God asking you to do, in faith, for him?"

Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
Help me cradle the child divine;
God reward thee and All that's thine
In paradise,"
So prays the mother Mary.

He came among us at Christmastide,
At Christmastide, in Bethlehem;
Men shall bring Him from far and wide
Love's diadem: Jesus, Jesus,
Lo, He comes, and loves, and saves, and frees us!

"Gladly, dear one, lady mine,
Help I cradle this child of thine;
God's own light on us both shall shine
In paradise,
As prays the mother Mary."

Peace to all that have goodwill!
God, who heaven and earth doth fill,
Comes to turn us away from ill,
And lies so still
Within the crib of Mary.

All shall come and bow the knee,
Wise and happy their souls shall be.
Loving such a divinity
As all may see
In Jesus, Son of Mary.
(Traditional German carol)