This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
Madeleine L’Engle played a big part in my understanding of both Advent and the Liturgical Year through her book, The Irrational Season, which draws its title from her poem. She wrote essays working her way around the calendar in church time – Advent, Christmas, Holy Innocents, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, Transfiguration, Advent – challenging me to learn to tell time differently. (I wrote more fully about this here.) Advent both began (“the night is far gone”) and ended (“the day is at hand”) her timekeeping because the Birth was the reason we have a calendar at all. Our year, our faith, our hope, begins here and calls us to expect a new year and to find new things in the Old, Old Story.
When I try to grasp the nature of the universe with my conscious mind, my humanly limited intellectual powers, I grope blindly. I come closer to understanding with the language of the heart, sipping hot bouillon and relaxing, standing by the dining-room window where I can no longer sit on the window sill because of our accumulation of plants – coleus and Swedish Ivy and ferns and alligator pears and philodendron and anything else we can coax to grow in the polluted air of the city – than when I think with mind alone. (4)
I’m sitting at my laptop in the makeshift dining room of our rent house sipping red wine instead of bouillon (not much of a bouillon sipper myself) next to the crush of crèches that adorn our mantle. Year after year, in quiet moments like these, the one in the story who pulls at me most is Joseph. While Luke’s telling provides the script for most of the pageants to be acted out in the next few days, with angels dropping in on Zachariah and Mary, Matthew writes about Joseph: Mary came up pregnant and they both knew he wasn’t the father, Joseph was trying to figure out how they could both step out of the marriage with the least amount of shame and scorn –
But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
After the dream, I imagine Joseph laying there wide-eyed (as if anyone could go back to sleep) and thinking, “Emmanuel – God with us. What am I supposed to do with that?” and then getting up to go find Mary. None of the gospel writers records any of Joseph’s words or feelings; all we are given are his actions: he stays with Mary, he takes her to Bethlehem, they flee into Egypt, and, as the boy grows up, he was his father. I did find one old ballad, “The Cherry Tree Carol,” that tells of Mary and Joseph being in a cherry orchard. She asks him to pick cherries for her and he tells her, rather snidely, to let the father of her child do it. It starts to rain cherries and he gets the point. (Fit that into your Lessons and Carols service!)
I don’t see him that way. As a carpenter, he was a guy who built things, who fixed things, who knew how to measure twice and cut once, who thrived on the kind of beauty that comes from precision as much as polish. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he wasn’t impulsive. He was thinking it through when the angel swooped into his dream. He moved from there to build a life for his family, such as it was, but all the measuring and planning the world could not have prepared him for what happened. The boy was born in a barn. People from shepherds to kings came to see him. They fled like refugees overnight because Herod wanted the baby killed. And that was just the first few months.
Like Mary, Joseph had to be filled with something other than reason – and fear. They had to swap angel stories at some point. He was the one given the name, which meant he would name the child as any father would do in those days. He grew into a role he never imagined he would be called to play and they lived out their days with a heartfelt understanding of the paradox of blessing: a life of meaningful pain and joy.
Down all the days, he still gets marginalized in most tellings of the story. He doesn’t do much more than lead the donkey and find a room, or at least a stable. I’m not pulling for equal billing, I just wanted to say when my heart hears the Story, I find deep resonance in this carpenter who chose to stay and stand with mother and child.
P. S. – Two things: the artwork is from Bee Still Studio (thanks to Karyn who has a copy hanging at her parents’ house). Second, the Beatles had long since broken up before I realized Mother Mary’s words to the boys from Liverpool were straight out of Luke. Though it’s no carol, I hear it differently this time of year, both in light of the Season and as I often find December a dark month.