Monday, November 29, 2010
Virtual Advent Retreat Part Three
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. -- Matthew 1:18-25
Our Amish friend Mary is a widow with six children, aged four to fourteen, living at home. She gets some help from her extended family and from her faith community, but life is still hard for her; she works part-time cleaning houses for "English" families and also runs a small business from her home, selling handmade baskets and soap. In the local Amish community she's known simply as "the widow"; to me a rather poignant and telling sign of the status of women without spouses in that subculture.
My partner and I help Mary when we can, in ways that respect her community's rules and her own sense of dignity. Sometimes that means bringing some extra income her way by purchasing her crafts. Sometimes that means dropping off extra food. We've also helped her merchandise her wares, driving them around to local stores that sell Amish goods, or fetched bulk baking supplies for her from the supermarket -- tasks that would literally take her all day with a horse and buggy. I've always felt good about these things; that they're real, person-to-person ways in which our household can follow the biblical charge to care for the widow and orphan.
The other weekend, after delivering some sugar and flour to Mary's house, we asked, as we always do, if there was anything else Mary needed. She hesitated a moment.
"My sister-in-law's baby is very sick, and has been in the hospital in Saginaw for a month now," she said. "We take turns going down there and staying with my sister in the hospitality house. So far we've been able to find drivers to take us to visit overnight...but...I wonder if you could maybe take us down there if we needed to go, and pick up the others and bring them back."
My partner and I nodded and smiled and said certainly we could help out...but inwardly I groaned. Saginaw is an hour away. Our household calendar is filled with commitments -- doctors' appointments, a trip out of state to visit children, church activities. How could we be on call for this type of transit service? What if they contact us on a day when we're busy with something else? How long would this responsibility last? For a few moments I began feeling cornered by a sense of obligation. How do we get so over-involved in other people's lives? I found myself thinking...until my compassion was reawakened by an inner stab of shame and the vision of a sad, scared mother a long way from home, culturally as well as physically, worrying over her sick newborn in the ICU.
How easy it is to place parameters on our acts of mercy; to measure out our compassion in easily manageable units, according to our own comfort level, at our own convenience; perhaps, deep down, according to our own sense of competence: "I can go this far; no farther."
By the standards of his own time and culture, Joseph exceeded most people's expectations of how a prospective husband should treat a fiancee' found to be pregnant. He would have been within his rights to publicly denounce Mary as an adultress and let the community guardians of morality deal with her in the way that patriarchal societies have traditonally dealt with women deemed to be sexually compromised. But no, he decided; he would take the high road: He would quietly call off the marriage, let Mary's family deal with the problem of her pregnancy, and walk away -- embarrassed and disappointed, surely, but blameless; and free to start over. There; he'd do his duty and then some.
What were Joseph's thoughts, one wonders, when he realized that God had a different plan -- one that would presumably implicate him as father of Mary's child, bringing his morality as well as Mary's into question; one that would additionally place on his shoulders the enormous responsibility of raising a child not his own, a child whose origin he could scarcely imagine? Did Joseph feel a hesitation, a catch of uncertainty, as he weighed the consequences of assenting to the task assigned to him? Did he feel that same weight of obligation settling around his shoulders as his expectations of a comfortable but unremarkable marriage to a nice Jewish girl faded into the reality of his situation? Did he wonder, in those waking moments, if the angel's message to him was real or just a fantasy spun out of control, a kind of psychological self-defense against the shock of hearing about Mary's pregnancy?
We don't know. Because whatever Joseph's thoughts and fears...in the end he, like Mary, accepted the angel's challenge to not be afraid. Like Mary, Joseph said "yes" to God. And Joseph said "yes" to Mary in a way that models what it means to be a person for others, someone whose love is willing to take risks on behalf of the lives of other human beings.
Prayer: Loving, gracious and merciful God, help me make room for Christ in my life by making room for risk on behalf of others. Help calm the fears that separate me from others. Let me say "yes" to the next right thing I'm called to do on behalf of my neighbors -- even when it's difficult, even when it comes at a cost. Help me do these things for Jesus' sake. Amen.