As we gathered for the second session of the Advent Program, we turn to two more names of Advent that we want to reflect upon, Joseph and Mary. In last week’s session we developed themes related to the significance of the meaning of the names as they are translated, Zechariah meaning “God remembers” and Elizabeth meaning “God’s promises”. This week’s we again explore names but in this session we look at the history of the names Joseph and Mary to determine what meaning they might have for the Nativity story.
As we are introduced to the character of Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, we first notice the deep connection between Joseph and the history of Israel. Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage to Abraham, cementing the place of Joseph in the life of Israel as well as insuring that Joseph has a central role in salvific history of God. The tracing of the ancestry reads like a who’s who of Israelite history with many familiar names that are attached to children’s biblical stories.
Yet another character trait of Joseph’s lineage is that of different sexual liaisons. From the beginning with Abraham whose first son was Ishmael, to ancestors who are the children of the rape of Tamar, to the reality that Rahab a Canaanite prostitute is an ancestor, the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a Moabite, the affair of David and Bathsheba, all these relationships demonstrate the “non-standard” relationships that are rife in Joseph’s line. This reality should open us to the reality that perhaps Joseph’s own sexual relationship in his marriage might be a little unconventional. In this light, is it really all that surprising that Joseph entered into a marriage with a women pregnant by someone other than himself? Probably not.
In Joseph’s tree we see a parallel, Joseph’s own father’s name is Jacob, which draws a connection between the original Jacob and Joseph in the life of Israel. The original Jacob, who is renamed Israel, has a favorite son, Joseph, who gets sold into slavery by his brothers. When Joseph later is reunites with his brothers, he says, “You meant it for evil, but God for good.” The story of Joseph was one who entered into darkness and becomes the light of hope for his family and all of Israel. So in the same way, we have the Joseph of the Nativity scene who enters into a certain darkness, the possibility of living with a woman carrying a child not his own. Yet in entering into that darkness he brings about the light of hope not just to Israel but all of humanity.
This is no small feat. Recall that it is by Joseph that Jesus has a connection to David, so if Joseph does not accept Jesus as his son, there is no connection to the line of David. God’s work hinges on Joseph being willing to accept this challenge. In a dream, Joseph of the Nativity, hears the message of God and chooses to accept the challenge. Dreams have been an important part of the original Joseph story and they are important in the story of the Nativity as well. Dreams have the ability to allow the Spirit to speak to us.
Whereas Joseph is given a long lineage to draw from, Mary is offered little in her story to place her in the larger story of Israel. The Gospel of Luke provides most of what we know about Mary in terms of background by giving her a connection to Elizabeth and Zachariah. But we know nothing about her family or her own story. So like Joseph, we need to think about other Mary’s in the story of Israel.
At the time of Jesus, the name Mary was very popular in Judea, many believing that it was the most popular women’s name of the time. The earliest Mary that Jewish scripture refer to is Miriam which is the Hebrew form of Mary. Miriam is the sister of Moses, who not only saved Moses’ life as a baby and is able to thwart Pharaoh in doing so. Miriam becomes a tremendous role model for Judean women. In scripture, Miriam is described as a prophetess, a rare position for a woman in Israel. She also is seen as someone who challenges the religious status quo and becoming a feminine hero within Israel’s history.
Mary is seen within this framework as a female leader who perhaps is willing to challenge the status quo, a woman who does not fit in the normal mold. If Miriam is one of the first prophets, Mary will become one of the first apostles of Jesus. While she presents this interesting challenge, through her name she comes to personify many women in Israel.
We can also draw a parallel to the wife of Herod, the Princess Miriamne. Miriamne is a descendent of the Hasmonean line who are the last line of rulers who lead an independent Israel. Herod marries Miriamne to help cement his claim on the throne of Judea. So Mary also represents a challenge to the political stasis of the region.
In Joseph and Mary we seemingly have two simple people caught up in God’s plan, but like most things, it is not that simple. Joseph is a reminder of how God calls us to live in the sometime dark aspects of life so that God can bring about light for others. The lineage of Joseph is messy and real, just as life is messy and real. The Nativity is not some bucolic story, but a story of how God enters into our messiness to bring about life and life. Do we invite God into our messiness in order to be invited into the miracle of God’s work?
In Mary we have a non-descript woman who embodies more than just herself. She demonstrates God’s willingness to break the mold, do something different and confounding. She represents all of us in her desire to trust in God. Do we trust in God to use us in ways that might be uncomfortable for us?
Take time to reflect upon Mary and Joseph and think about their own willingness to be used by the Almighty.