Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A
December 22, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Isaiah 7:10-14 | Psalm 24:1-6
Romans 1:1-7 | Matthew 1:18-24
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
At our Christmas Eve Sung Mass at 7:00 PM, I will have plenty to say about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today, however, the spotlight is on her husband, Joseph. Today’s Gospel narrates the birth of Jesus from his viewpoint, whereas the story of the birth of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, which will be sung on Christmas Eve, tells it from Mary’s perspective. Imagine two new reports about the same election, with one presented by Sean Hannity, and the other by Rachel Maddow. Those presentations will be very different, I assure you.
Not too much is known about Joseph. He is not mentioned in the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, and he appears nowhere in the Pauline epistles, which chronologically predate the four canonical Gospels by several decades. To understand who he might have been, we must turn to non-canonical, or apocryphal material
The non-canonical writings known as the “Protovangelium of James” and the “History of Joseph the Carpenter” portray Joseph as an elderly widower whose first wife was Salome to whom he was married for forty-nine years. With her, he sired six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James the Less, known as the brother of Jesus. A year after the death of his first wife, the Temple priests announced throughout Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Judah a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went to Jerusalem with the other candidates; there God chose Joseph; and two years later the Annunciation took place.
In those days, marriages were arranged, not autonomous. People did not usually fall in love and marry based on their feelings for each other as is the case in North America and Europe. Instead, marriages were arranged between families, as they still are in some parts of today’s world, particularly in Africa, Asia, India, and the Middle East, where, in many respects, women are considered property rather than people with individual rights of their own.
But despite Mary being with the child of the Holy Spirit, the genealogies of Jesus appearing in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke show Joseph as part of the biological lineage of Jesus. The gospel writers did this to show that the ancestors of Jesus could be traced back to King David. Indeed, you will recall that in several places in the Gospels, Jesus is identified as “the Son of David.” This seeming contradiction has been used by some people to question the Virgin Birth, the idea that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit instead of by the usual human biological process. As with many things concerning Jesus, I will leave all of that simply as a mystery beyond human understanding as a matter of your trust in God’s love for humanity.
Today’s Gospel has Joseph “betrothed to Mary.” Modernly, we would say they were engaged to be married, but to fully understand Joseph’s situation, we have to consider the marriage customs of the day. Not only were marriages arranged between families, but betrothal was almost as binding as marriage itself. However, in those days, a woman pregnant before marriage transgressed the community norms in a very serious way. Things back then are not like today’s world, where in the United States approximately forty percent of all children are born to unwed mothers, and one in four parents living with a child in the United States today are unmarried. But in the days when Jesus was born, a woman pregnant by a man not her husband faced death by stoning.
With a pregnant fianceé, Joseph didn’t know what to do. He did know that he was not the baby’s father because he had not yet had sex with his bride-to-be. Again, the laws and customs in those days were different from today’s America, where premarital sex is commonplace. Joseph perhaps considered that Mary may have been raped or seduced, and if that was the case, his sense of justice told him Mary should not be punished for that. So he thought that a quiet divorce would solve the problem. In those days, divorce was not done in a public court as it is today but were proceedings conducted privately upon the initiative of the male member of a couple.
However, there is another possible understanding of Joseph’s situation. How about we look at it through eyes of love, that is, meditating, perceiving, and expecting the best in all things and in all people? God always looks at humanity through the eyes of love. Love opens the door to many mysteries. Through an angel, God rescued Joseph’s situation: Mary was carrying a child of the Holy Spirit, who would be the promised Messiah. The angel told Joseph the child would be called, “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us” and Jesus, a common Jewish name meaning, “one who saves.” These two appellations for God’s Son describe the very essence of the incarnation, a God who became one of us to deliver salvation.
The angel’s appearance made Joseph realize that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was overwhelmed with the holiness of the situation and the responsibility of being a step-father to God’s child and of being a husband to His mother. Joseph was a humble man who didn’t consider himself worthy to be part of that family. But the angel reassured Joseph that everything would be alright. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said, in words similar to those an angel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation when she learned she would bear God’s Son.
Joseph is among the most neglected saints. Usually, when we think of saints, we think of apostles, prophets, and martyrs, people whose lives were marked by excitement and drama. But what distinguished Joseph was his humility demonstrated when he accepted reassurance from God’s angel that all will be well.
Joseph did not set out in search of glory and renown, yet he was chosen for a more glorious role than he ever could have imagined. When he met Our Lady, he was looking for a wife, not the Mother of God. Despite the gravity of his duties, St. Joseph never assumed an air of self-importance or vanity. He never grew puffed up at this honor and responsibility; he simply responded with holy wonder.
Humility enables us to recognize and act on the recognition of our true relationship to God first, and to other persons. By this standard, Saint Joseph was a very humble man. He recognized his place with respect to Mary and Jesus. He knew that he was inferior to both of them in the order of grace. Yet he accepted his role as spouse of Mary and guardian of the Son of God.
The lesson for us is that genuine humility prevents us from claiming to be better or more than we really are. Nowhere is this more true than in gender relations. The opposite of humility is pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride is at the root of what is called “toxic masculinity”, the very opposite of the version of masculinity modeled by Joseph in his relationship to Mary and Jesus.
“Toxic masculinity” is the root cause of many of today’s social and political problems. What is “toxic masculinity”? Traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall. Those norms include dominance, self-reliance, competition, homophobia, misogyny, greed, primacy of work, the need for control, status-seeking, repression of weakness and control of emotions other than anger and lust. Colloquially, such men are known as “macho types.” Deacon Sharon will tell you they are found in great numbers in Texas.
Toxic masculinity can also take the form of bullying of boys by their peers and domestic violence like corporal punishment directed toward boys at home. This violent socialization of boys inflicts psychological trauma by promoting aggression and blocking interpersonal connection with other people. Such trauma is often disregarded, such as in the saying \”boys will be boys.\”
The promotion of idealized masculine roles emphasizing toughness, dominance, self-reliance, and the restriction of emotion begins in infancy through norms that are transmitted by parents, other male relatives, and the community at large. In my own life, my parents sent me to a boys camp, pushed me to join the Boy Scouts, sent me to an all-boys school, and encouraged me to play competitive sports. I didn’t really enjoy any of those experiences, but my parents insisted that they were good for me because I needed to “toughen up and be a man” as the surrounding world defined that role. I was told that I would as an adult become a father and financially a family, roles I resoundingly rejected as an adult. I was determined to be a man on my own terms.
Traditionally prescribed masculinity produces violence, (including sexual assault and domestic violence), risky behaviors like substance abuse and daredevil stunts, and dysfunction in relationships. Traditional masculinity ideology\” is also associated with negative effects on mental and physical health. Men who adhere to traditionally masculine cultural norms tend to be more likely to experience psychological problems such as depression, stress, body image problems, substance abuse, and poor social functioning. Toxic masculinity is also implicated in socially-created public health problems, such as the role of “trophy-hunting” sexual behavior in rates of transmission of venereal disease.
Toxic masculinity affirms character and behavior that is precisely the opposite of that exemplified by Saint Joseph. He was a man whose humility enabled him to accept personal responsibility for his situation. His humility allowed him to be open to, and accept, the angel’s message of reassurance. That lesson of personal responsibility is just as extremely important in today’s world as it was to Joseph. Despite the easy availability of condoms and vasectomies in today’s world, single men still get their girlfriends pregnant and, unlike Joseph, they often abandon the woman and child. Such men feel little to no attachment to the unborn child and expect pregnancy and motherhood to not only change but ruin the girlfriend and the relationship.
Why? Toxic masculinity inhibits men from feeling the kind of emotional and attachment to women and children that lead to better marriage and family. Toxic males see relationships with women not as cooperation, but competition which the man by right must win. So-called “real men” don’t show emotions like caring and tenderness that women and children need at their most vulnerable moments of life.
Toxic males who are the precise opposite of Saint Joseph in positions of power wreak substantial negative effects on those within their spheres of influence, such as opposition to gun control, destruction of the social safety net, attacking freedom of speech and the press, oppression of immigrants, taking away the rights of women to control their reproductive destiny, and condemnation of L-G-T-B persons. When toxic males are in leadership positions, their negatives exponentially poison the world with their authoritarian personalities. Look at President Erdogan of Turkey, President Duterte of the Philippines, President Xi of China, President Putin of Russia, and last but not least, the current occupant of the White House. Their followers may put up with them because the economies in their country are good, but for followers of Jesus, no amount of economic success ever justifies oppression of human rights.
Today’s Gospel is a call to the world to change its concept of what men should be. If the Annunciation narrative is to be accepted, Joseph had no role in the birth of Jesus. After the flight into Egypt and subsequent journey to Nazareth, Joseph fades into the background. We know nothing of his life after Jesus was born, or how, or when Joseph died, except that he was not there with Mary at the foot of the cross when Jesus died. In the life of the Church, Mary became far more significant. The overall message is that male dominance of humanity is not a biological inevitability.
Here at Saint Cecilia’s, women dominate most of the liturgical, musical and social roles. On many Sundays, I am the only guy at the Altar. The same is true in my personal life. My physician is a woman with female assistants. Same for my dentist. My tax preparer is a woman. Mechanics Bank in Palm Springs, where Saint Cecilia’s has its account, is all female.
If he were here today, Saint Joseph would be pleased. No toxic male could ever be married to Reverend Deacon Sharon Kay Talley. She dislikes macho men with a passion. She values men who are ethical, reliable, considerate, supportive, and compassionate, who facilitate her life rather than dominate her. It’s not easy to be her husband, but I try very hard all the time to meet her standards and be Saint Joseph to her. Actually, being what she wants me to be has made me a more successful person. I would not be where I am today without her.
From a worldly point of view, Saint Joseph fails as a man. He is not wealthy. He doesn’t fight the bad guys and win. Most of what he is can be described using words that historically describe femininity: silence, caring, consideration, submission, obedience, humility. His masculinity is one that safeguards, supports, upholds, behaves with quiet courage and shuns the limelight. He sees no need to attack womanhood or forcefully superiority. His masculinity bears little resemblance to much of the chauvinist nonsense that often presents itself as Christian manhood among our conservative sisters and brothers.
Saint Joseph calls me and other men to masculinity focused on the needs of others rather than the gratification of one’s own desires, appetites, and ego. You can’t imagine Saint Joseph bragging to his buddies, making demeaning comments about women or bullying other people. When the angel says, “So, Joe, God impregnated your wife. Don’t be afraid to go ahead and marry her,” he doesn’t bristle or get offended. He doesn’t drown his sorrows at the bar, or go out and blow a bunch of money on a hot new chariot to prove that he’s still the man. He’s a one donkey guy — and his pregnant wife gets to ride the donkey!
A Saint Joseph style masculinity is one that is mindful. Journalist and author Liz Plank, in her book, “For the Love of Men,” defines mindful masculinity as a state of being aware and conscious of one’s internal dialogue and behaviors, getting in touch with the intentions behind one’s actions. To put it simply, the result is that we become aware of the reason why we do the things we do.
Mindful masculinity encourages men to look inward to remain connected to all those things that make them a good man instead of the unhelpful sexist trash dumped into their brains by the surrounding society. That’s what Saint Joseph did. In choosing to support and protect Mary pregnant with Jesus, he both interacted with his conscience and opened himself to God in the message of an angel instead of blindly following cultural norms. Saint Joseph focused on introspection rather than the surrounding world. Saint Joseph took responsibility for himself and his family instead of the delusion of go-it-alone.
Saint Joseph offers an example for becoming a good man instead of a toxic “real” man. He invites our world to look at what manhood is and how we raise boys. He shows us what freedom from rigid gender roles looks like. His situation in today’s Gospel demonstrates that gender roles oppress men as well as women and that conscience and compassion, not rigid adherence to human social rules, must be allowed to rule our hearts and determine our actions. Doing that will ultimately bring us closer to God because, in the kingdom of heaven, human rules will not matter. AMEN.