Sunday, December 22, 2019

Matthew 2.13-23: What Joseph Makes Possible

Ann Weems asked, "Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?"* That's what we tend to do...put mother and child in the center, and sheep and shepherds in front. Magi with camels off to one side. Angels in the sky. And Joseph in the back of the stable with the donkey and the ox. Joseph becomes just another working animal in the story. And it is true that Joseph is working throughout the gospel infancy narratives, but surely Joseph has a story worth telling. He does. It's in Matthew's gospel (2:13-23).

In the course of Matthew 1 and 2, Joseph is visited not once, not twice, but three times by angels. Joseph is called to move forward with his marriage to Mary. He takes his great-with-child wife on a 90-mile journey to his family's town of origin where his wife gives birth to a baby boy. After another visit from an angel, he is instructed to take his wife and child to Egypt. He must get them out of town as deadly danger marches toward them and keep them safe as they travel more than 400 miles. When the time is right, he will bring his family home. Joseph definitely has a story.

Joseph's handling of unexpected scenarios should earn him our admiration and respect. He is resourceful and capable. His actions show him to be devoted to his family and responsive to God's direction. No wonder God chose him.

Scenes of the family's travel to Egypt are often romanticized or sentimentalized. The two adults are often in the landscape with a moon shining down highlighting the people, the donkey (there's usually a donkey), and an obligatory palm tree. It is quiet and contemplative. The realities of traveling via donkey (even donkey cart) for 400+ miles with an infant are no doubt more prosaic than we imagine. And certainly they are more prosaic than Caravaggio's image here. But I think Caravaggio gets Joseph's role right.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Rest on the Flight into Egypt. 1597. Rome: Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Caravaggio has chosen a rest stop as the family travels. Mother and child both rest, their heads touching. The vegetation is lush, though stones are scattered on the path. Joseph and the donkey look at the angel who faces away from us and toward the family. The angel is playing the violin, presumably lulling mother and child to sleep. Joseph's eyes are focused on the angel, but in his hands he holds the music manuscript, making the angel's music possible.

That seems to be Joseph's lot: keeping focused on doing what God calls him to do while making other people's work possible. Bless him. Let's give Joseph a little more attention this Christmas season.

* Weems' poem "Getting to the Front of the Stable" is in the collection Kneeling in Bethlehem.

For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23, click here.

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