Monday, December 24, 2007

A Very Human Holy Family

I ran across the picture above in a magazine in my dentist’s office recently, and I was intrigued. The artist, Gari Melchers (1860-1932), lived for many years in a house just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. My husband and I lived in Fredericksburg for the first year after we were married, and we have visited the house – Belmont – and his studio. I must not have seen this particular painting, because if I had I don’t think I would have been able to forget it.

My tastes generally run more to more formal Medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Nativity of our Lord, but I was very moved by this intimate portrait of Mary and Joseph watching over the newborn infant Jesus, minus the usual entourage of animals, angels, shepherds and Magi, as they contemplate the enormity of what God has done – and the task He has entrusted to them.

There is a lamp at Joseph’s feet, yet the glow cast throughout the room comes not from it but from the cradle holding the newborn infant who is the very Light of the World.

Mary looks spent, as would any woman who has just given birth. She leans her head against her husband’s cloak as she gazes with him at the child of whom the Angel Gabriel said, some nine months earlier,

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)

Of course, there is yet another profound dimension to the story of which I am only just beginning to scratch the surface now that I am a Catholic: Mary’s fiat (her declaration in response to Gabriel’s announcement):

And Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (vs.38)

A little over a year ago I read a booklet of excerpts from the writings of John Henry Newman entitled, Mary as the New Eve (Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3). It helped me to understand what lies behind the Catholic dogmas, doctrines and practice concerning Mary that protestants, especially evangelicals – including myself at the time – find so problematic. I learned that this idea – that Mary, because of her “yes” became the means of undoing Eve’s “no” – was not a new one. It was the subject of some of the writings of the Church Fathers, including St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 120-165), St. Irenaeus (120-200), Tertullian (160-240), and, later, Jerome (331-420). In other words Mary, like Eve, was a responsible moral agent, complete with the same free will that Eve perverted to her own ends. But Mary not only said yes, she did so with great joy and humility, and so, in the words of St. Irenaeus, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary.” That is, she was not merely the vessel of the Incarnation, she actually cooperated in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

I recommend this synopsis of Newman’s writing on the subject of Mary. His writing is very dense at times, and tackling a whole book like Apologia pro vita sua can be daunting. I find his writing easier to take in small doses like this. It is well worth the effort. If you are already Catholic, it will help you to be, in the words of 1 Peter (3:15), “prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” If you are protestant you may find here – as I did – clarification of some of your assumptions about the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary.

And let’s not forget Joseph. What a stand-up guy. When faced with the news that his prospective wife is expecting a child, his response reveals a man focused on her best interests: “…Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.” (Matt. 1:19) In other words, although the marriage was null and void according to the law, Joseph wanted to protect Mary from public scandal. Then when an angel explains to the real story to him in a dream, he doesn’t hesitate to follow the angel’s command and take Mary as his wife. He is the one to whom God reveals the name by which the child will be known – Jesus.

This is the first but not the last time that Joseph’s obedience to God’s direction proves crucial. It is Joseph whom God warns in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape Herod’s search-and-destroy mission. Once again, he obeys, and his obedience saves Jesus’ life.

He is never front-and-center in the story of Jesus’ life as recorded in scripture, but his role is crucial. Imagine for a moment what the Nativity story would be without Joseph. Had he not been willing to follow God's instructions in the first instance, Mary might have been exposed to public shame and even the penalty of stoning under the law. Had he not obeyed God and taken his family to Egypt, Jesus might have ended up as one of Herod's victims. Certainly God would have found a way to work out his plan of salvation, but the point is that Joseph's obedience, like Mary's, was crucial to the success of this particular plan.

The Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square in Rome this year is set in Joseph's carpentry shop in Nazareth, rather than the traditional stable in Bethlehem. It has incited some controversy, but one reason that the Holy Father did it this way was to remind us of the critical role of Jesus' earthly father and, by extension, of all earthly fathers, in protecting and guiding their families.

This picture reminds us that Jesus' Incarnation did not take place in a vacuum. He was bortn into a family, to a man and woman who, fortunately for us, were willing to obey God even when they did not fully understand His purposes. It must have seemed overwhelming at times, raising such a child, and the Mary and Joseph pictured here do seem overwhelmed - as are most parents of newborns. Yet they are also peaceful, and they will remain faithful - to each other, to Jesus, and to the task God has assigned them.

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