By Dr. Carol Youngers
So often we read Holy Scripture from our own vantage point. It’s only natural — we aren’t trained biblical exegetes, so what else can we do? However, we should remember that many meanings can be found in photo, story, or book.
I don’t know much about my mother’s family. Recently many memoirs and photos stored for literally decades have resurfaced in my childhood family home. In one photo of my mother’s family, her parents are seated and looking at the camera, with all the children in the same photo. The oldest son and his wife are seated at the other side of the photo, also looking at the camera. In between are two seated and three standing siblings. Relationships among all are revealed starkly, along with the obvious status of the eldest son.
Looking more closely at my mother’s image, her place in the photo as well as her body language and facial expression, I felt a great wave of pain wash over me. She did not look at the camera; her eyes were carefully cast down, hands folded tight against her, her mouth even and straight. It was all too easy to see how she felt: her lack of belonging in the family, her fear of the rest, her sadness! It startled me!
Her face betrayed no shred of any emotion to see, criticize. She is as physically distant as she can be from all the others, and still remain part of the family. Suddenly, I recognize how and who she was, not only in her own birth family, but also in her marriage and motherhood. I understand her stories of how she grew up now and became my mother. How much compassion, love and such longing I felt for her to be with a different Father who would keep her safe, tell her how much she is loved!
Reading Scripture’s short narratives is like looking at photo clues about family members, their relationships. We know them from what we see and how we look at it.
In Matthew (1:18-24) we meet the protector of the Church, the husband of Mary, the earthly father of Jesus, the righteous man. None of the other Gospels reveal such close view of this great saint! Neither John nor Mark mention him. Luke gives us the Annunciation, Elizabeth’s inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s Magnificat, a prayer of joy so lovely the church prays it every evening.
Matthew focuses on descendants of Abraham and David. Along this genealogical line, we see the full, unvarnished humanity of Christ’s lineage: Tamar, the daughter-in-law seductress; Rahab, the faith-filled pagan prostitute; Ruth, Moabite ex-patriot; and Bathsheba, Egyptian adulteress. Their human imperfections are clear for all to see; then Matthew then introduces Mary and Joseph. Mary is “found” to be with child though engaged to Joseph. And yet, this seemingly less-than-perfect circumstance was ordained by God, who through their obedience restored imperfect mankind to himself.
Silently passing over Mary’s Annunciation, Matthew turns the focus to Joseph, who always did what was right. But what was the right thing to do here? Matthew implies that Joseph sees no wrong in Mary, but he wants to do God’s will. Joseph struggles with what could be the right way to deal with this unplanned pregnancy. “What does God want?” This very struggle and tentative decision is his prayer, and the Holy Spirit answers his questions in a dream, when he has no conscious control of rationale. An angel tells him Mary’s child is the Child of the Holy Spirit; Joseph must name Him Jesus because of His mission – to save His people from their sins. Joseph awakens and obeys.
We really need to see Joseph’s real struggle. Living in the 21st century, we automatically assume Joseph is struggling because he thinks Mary is pregnant by another man. But what if Joseph had accompanied Mary in her visit to Elizabeth? What if he knew there was no explanation for this pregnancy, and what if he didn’t know what God wanted of him in regards to Mary, regardless of what he knew? Now, his struggle has another dimension. Joseph doesn’t judge, he struggles with what is right for him to believe, what is right for him to do. Joseph’s righteous nature is Matthew’s focus. The angel brings God’s righteousness to his struggle and prayer. Once Joseph has it, he responds immediately. The righteous man and woman follow God’s will as it is revealed to them. Mary accepted God’s desire to have her mother His Son. And Joseph accepted God’s mission for him: protector, husband, earthly father of God’s own Son. Mary gave birth to Jesus. Joseph named Him Jesus.
Our mission? Not to understand everything, but to accept His Mercy and Love, and bring both to others.
About the Author:
Dr. Carol Younger – A Senior Fellow for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, Advisory Board Member for the Great Adventure Bible Studies, author of Listening and Study Guides for biblical and theological presentations through St. Joseph Communications, author of the Retreat Companion for 33 Days to Morning Glory through Marian Press. An accomplished leader in public and private education and a popular adjunct professor at an evangelical Christian university in Southern California. Active in many parish ministries, including RCIA and Catechetical training.