Each year, as we draw near to the season of Advent, I always feel myself reaching for the spiritual “refresh” button. Though we sometimes think of the calendrical new year as a time for resolutions, and Lent as the time for spiritual renewal and return, Advent has its own richness and possibility as a time in which we prepare for the comings of Christ—at the end of time and in celebrations of his nativity—by taking the opportunity to reset our hearts, our lives, so that Christ may once again become incarnate through us.
A fair amount of time during my Advents past has been spent reflecting on the lives and witness of Joseph and Mary (since we’re entering the year of Matthew, whose infancy narrative focuses on Joseph, I named him first). My meditations tend to be spent on their relationships with each other, with angels, and with God-in-Christ, Emmanuel. In a way, this runs counter to the majority of the Christian tradition, which has focused quite a bit on their separation or distance from one another. Like many Roman Catholics of a certain age, I grew up praying “blessed be St. Joseph, [Mary’s] most chaste spouse” (even before I knew what “chaste” was), and referring to him as the “foster” father of Jesus. I’m not saying any of this was in error, and I understand its role and importance, but an excessive or exclusive focus—sometimes amplified by our prurient culture—on their surface separateness leaves us picking up pretty pebbles from the ground, as we risk not mining the gold that lies beneath.
In both Joseph and Mary we see a single-heartedness, a purity of intent, a devotion to their child Yeshua bar Yussef, even before his birth. It is the very stuff that covenants, and vows, and ministries are made of. Their living of the beatitude “blessed are the pure in heart” does not mean that they were never confused, or were never afraid, or never doubted. Certainly they each had moments that we would all recognize as frail humanity in action. But in their love—of God, of their child, of each other—they also knew the fullness of Emmanuel, the God-with-them.
It is in Joseph and Mary that I find much of my inspiration for discipleship, and for a life of ministry—whether at the editor’s desk, on the organ/piano bench, at a podium to speak or conduct, or with the author’s or composer’s pen in hand. In Joseph—the earthly father of Jesus, and his father under the covenant of Israel—I find my inspiration to stay in touch with my dreams, to be open to angel-messengers speaking therein, to be undaunted in facing adversities, and to hand on the heritage of faith, as Joseph would have to Jesus. In Mary I find the courage to ask questions, even of angel messengers; in her I am shown that we can change the world by saying “yes” to God’s will—a lesson her son repeated in a garden and on a cross. Joseph and Mary both had many unremarkable days, not recounted anywhere, yet I am sure that they lived each of those days with a singleness and purity of heart which forsook all others, and was built on the very foundations of covenant: faithfulness and love. It was that chasteness, as husband and wife, as parents, into which the Word of God was born.
As the cycle of the year of grace comes around again, may we all—no matter what our ministry or ministries may be—come back more deeply to a chaste singleness and purity of heart.