I have had so many things to write about this week but they all passed me by. Today, however, is Sunday again, and the last gasp of Advent, my favorite time of year (except for Lent). The lectionary arrangers have appointed the Gospel according to Matthew, the bit about Joseph learning from the Angel that Mary, his betrothed, is to be the mother of the Son of God, and that he should take her as his wife, and Jesus as his own child.
I read the texts yesterday, hoping to have a moment to think about them. And then I happened upon this thread on Twitter:
I clicked through and read the thread, and some of the comments, before going on to the next thing. Here is the next tweet:
At first, as is my wont, I was inclined to join the mob and castigate this man. I am all for the fraternal associations of men with each other, but the “getting high” bit is hard for me to understand. Really? Giving up that foolish activity is what makes you feel like “the walls are closing in?” But, thinking about it more calmly, I must acknowledge the universal human experience that if you are used to doing something and have come to enjoy it, however destructive, of course it would be a difficult thing to give up, first for a wife, and then for a child. When you say yes to one thing, you are necessarily saying no to all the other things. ‘No,’ even if you find good reasons to say it, is always painful.
The brewing trouble is that we here in the West committed to telling a terrible lie to each other. We began to kid around with each other that saying ‘yes’ to something came at no cost. After a while, we began to believe the joke. Having it ‘all’ is one of the most precious lies that we came, wholeheartedly, to embrace. Is it any wonder that so many people decide to forgo the gifts and riches of family? They come at a high cost, and too few modern people have enjoyed their benefits because several generations of ancestors counted them too lightly.
A man articulating this kind of loss is no cause for a mob to form, no reason to tweet scold. If motherhood is an incomprehensible choice in this current kind of world, of course fatherhood must be not only incomprehensible, but in many cases repugnant, a cause for mourning, as he says:
Giving up behaviors and activities that console one is a perfectly good reason for lamentation, I say as I dip my finger in this vat of unctuous chocolate that I’m mixing up for the Ladies’ Christmas Tea.
And then, one mustn’t forget the ever-present anxiety of every age, but particularly this fractured one, where ordinary human tasks and institutions are maligned, unsupported by famlilial and common life because there are no robust, as they say, ‘thick’ communities to join themselves to the efforts of online people:
I imagine that Justin Murphy hasn’t spent too much time thinking about the past–his own or anyone else’s. These tweets reflect what Patrick Deneen (I just finished his excellent book) calls “Presentism”–the pervasive and all-encompassing experience of time as a crushing “now.” There isn’t any past that matters, nor any future that counts. Each person is caught in his anxiety and grief, trying to remediate those two overpowering experiences through activities like getting high and hanging out.
But look what a strange consolation is offered in the Scriptures. It isn’t true that anxiety, grief, and it’s potent sibling, shame were unknown to generations long past, nor that what the past says about them are irrelevant to the way we experience them now. On the contrary, the lived-experience of the people who endured God’s mighty works in the past set the table for our own rich and astonishing future. How can this be?
If anyone might have felt “the walls closing in” it would have been Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Christ. It isn’t just that all of his hopes for a married life were dashed in that dark, pressing night. It is that for the rest of his life he took on her perceieved commual shame. Not only that, he was given the task of caring for, protecting, indeed “bringing up” a child who was God. Imagine the shattering nature of such a task.
And then, God, in his providence, arranged for this child to be born in the most uncomfortable circumstances, to come into our lowly estate in the humblest and most inconvenient possible way. Not at home, in comfort, or in a hospital, but in a place where other people who, however hard they might have tried, could not understand the appreciate the task or the call.
It is nice to think of Saint Joseph–and indeed, the Bible calls him a just, a righteous man, a person who considered the nature and character of God so deeply that he was able to not only be merciful but then to obey–but Joseph in the narrative of the Incarnation is meant to look like every man. He is not rich. He doesn’t have resources. He is certainly ill-equipped for the task. If you have ever wondered how on earth you will be able to face the day in front of you, only take a side-long glance at Joseph and you will feel better about yourself. You are not meant to think, ‘I could never do that.’ You are meant to think, ‘With God all things are possible.’
No, the difficult bit is beginning to grapple with that ‘yes’ that both Mary and Joseph said to God. They said yes to each other–something that two ordinary people can barely do without dying–and they said yes to God, to their own shame, but for God’s own glory. When you say yes to God, you are saying no to everything else. You are, in a real sense, agreeing to die to everything you ever thought you might want. You are agreeing that God will be all in all to you. It is an impossible kind of yes.
But God, as is his wont, comes into the narrowness of your death, your renunciation of yourself, and replaces all the shadow consolations of your current habits with himself. He becomes someone you can catch hold of, someone so intimate you can hang onto him forever. Indeed, as you can hold a baby in your arms, so you can reach out and receive a bit of bread in your hand, so you can lift up a cup to your lips and swallow, so God himself comes to grab you, to save you, to make you a part of him.
It is so hard. It will often feel like the walls are closing in. But what is happening is really that a very narrow door is being wrenched open, and you are being invited to walk through. Don’t hesitate. Say yes. And all these other things (though probably not getting high) will be added to you.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash