Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ironic Advent Meditation #22: Something about Joseph


Since you might not know any other medievalists, I should probably tell you about the English mystery plays (that's a technical term I won't explain now, but you can take my course for something like a thousand bills a credit hour). Especially the plays about Joseph and Mary.

My favorite of the bunch is from the so-called York Plays (or York Mystery Cycle which, as I said,  I'd explain if you were paying). The official title is "Joseph's Trouble about Mary." I love that title. But sometimes I like to call it "Something about Mary," especially considering that it is funny as hell. Seriously funny.

So, old Joseph (oh, what? You didn't know that in the medieval tradition Joseph was depicted as a very old man, and that the Joseph/Mary relationship was a rather stereotypical January/May marriage, not that unusual in medieval life or literature? That's something you would probably know if you took my course. No, I'm not going to explain a January/May marriage now. Read Chaucer. Or take my course.).

Where was I?

So, old Joseph starts the play by directly addressing the audience in a pretty strong northern dialect (which . . . blah blah blah . . . take my course). Basically he says, I've got some trouble. Well, really Mary has got some trouble. Or she is my trouble. Or I'm troubled by what she has done or what's been done to her or (sounding like that guy on Duck Dynasty) what she went and done. I'm not only troubled. I'm old. 

And then he would walk around and look all feeble and old because that's the tradition. Then he'd talk some more to the audience about why Mary's pregnancy is such a problem. First of all, he says, we haven't done it. And second of all, he whines, I couldn't have done it if I had wanted to have had done it (old Joseph had problems with his tenses as well as his senses; eventually he would have problems with the census too). 

I'll try to summarize the rest. What are you laughing at? Anyway, old Joseph goes to talk to young Mary but first he encounters her handmaidens, another very cool medieval tradition I'm not explaining. The thing is he kind of  blames them for not being on the lookout and for letting young Mary do what she must have done to be in the trouble she now is. 

Well, the handmaidens don't know that Joseph will someday be Saint Joseph, they just know he's a jealous old husband, so they give him verbal beat down which earns them the title of "shrews before Shakespeare" in the scholarly literature (I really just mean an essay I wrote). Well, he gets angry, but he's old, feeble angry, plus medieval audiences are used to the idea of an old jealous husband who has been cuckolded by a young beautiful wife, so they find it hilarious. We assume. Although maybe a bit disorienting, considering who these folks are supposed to be. 

Eventually Joseph interrogates Mary, asking her over and over again, each time in a slightly different way: whotheheckdunit?

Look at me Mary, I'm very serious. This is my serious look. Whose child is it? Who is the father? Who have you been sleeping with? Mary's answers are very short and very direct. In order. God's. Yours. Nobody. 

Joseph goes away distressed but determined, he tells the audience, to try to put Mary away without shaming her. As he's walking along, he suddenly tells us, I'm really tired and will go to sleep right now. Then an angel appears. And I assume you know the rest. 

Joseph comes back and apologizes. Mary says there is no need to apologize. He says, no, really, I apologize, for you will be the mother of the Lord. And she says, yes, but you don't need to apologize for you shall be Saint Joseph. Then they argue about whether the correct form is will or shall. OK, I made that part up. Then they call a truce. 

I love this tradition. I also love some of the other traditions related to Saint Joseph like the flowering rod. What?! You don't know that Joseph was chosen as Mary's husband when his rod blossomed (when the spirit like a dove descended) even though he was the oldest guy, by far, in a kind of beauty pageant of potential husbands set up by the high priest? I thought everyone learned that in Sunday School at First Baptist. Check out the statues of Jesus next time you're in Rome or San Antonio. 

Oh well, my meditations might seem rather gloomy lately. I make no apologies for that. I just always  assume that Jeremiah is everyone else's favorite prophet too. But those medieval folks, who really lived in a dark . . . age, to coin a phrase, still found a way to laugh and to see their own problems even in the sacred story of the New Testament's first family. 

So be it. Fact: there are some wild stories about St. Joseph. Maybe some of them true. But I'm just saying that the one narrated in today's gospel reading, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, is really all the wild one good old (or middle-aged or young) man would ever need. This is emotional trauma, not cold marble statues of a guy with a flowering rod.

First, let's assume he loved the girl. There is evidence of that since we are told that he considered putting her away or divorcing her quietly so as not to shame her. Let's assume he was hurt. I assume that. Don't you? I assume he was hurt deeply. Deeper than the words hurt deeply can convey. Let's assume he was angry. Let's assume he was confused. Finally, just for discussion, let's assume he had never met an angel before (although he probably called Mary that a few times when they, having kissed dating goodbye, were courting). 

Listen to my exasperated voice. This next phrase should be read as one big sigh. If you can both sigh and clinch your teeth, even better. Now, go: All he wanted was to marry a nice girl, have a family, and make good chairs (not being a Platonist, he believed that chairs--as well as girls and families--were real and meaningful in and of themselves). You didn't need to sigh on that platonic parenthetic part. 

I don't know if an inspirational speaker ever came to Joseph's synagogue and got him to make a five or ten-year plan. But if so, I'll bet his plan was to fit in, survive, and find some love and happiness and good work in this world in which we are born to trouble as sparks fly upwards. 

But now . . . she's pregnant. Damn! Now all that's over. Even the nine-month plan, if he had one, is in need of radical revision. But he cares about her enough, or he's just that good of a man (which the gospel text declares) that he's going to be careful that her life is not destroyed. Although perhaps, he thinks, his is. 

And then . . . an angel? Hear me exhale? OK, I'll try to believe that as long as you don't insist that I buy the flowering rod story too. I'm pretty sure Pope Pius would have made me, but, heck, Pope Francis is to0 be busy negotiating his new gig on A & E, replacing Phil, to worry about it, I figure. 

Anyway, an angel? I guess we are supposed to think that solves everything. And Joseph is pretty good about it, considering. Yes Mary, I saw an angel who confirmed your story that God made you pregnant. So now I'll take care of you and help raise God's son. Yep, sure, it makes TOTAL SENSE TO ME!!

I just mean. The wildness wasn't over was it? Seems like it was just starting. You got the neighbors, you maybe got the handmaidens, whoever is close enough to know that things are a little weird. You get the family now--Zacharias, Elizabeth, crazy little hairy John. You got the donkey, the trip, the barn, the shepherds, the wise guys. And that boy. THAT boy. And that girl you loved. LOVE. I don't know. How you supposed to get any chairs built?

Of course we don't know what happened. Joseph kind of disappears from the story. But WE don't need to forget him. A good man we are told. He did what he needed to, and more than that I'd say.  I don't know about the story Sister Philomena told me back at Our Lady of Mercy elementary. I'm not sure if it happened that way. But, as far as I'm concerned, dude's rod blossomed. I'm not exactly sure what kind of long-range life plan he made, but he got the kind you can't really prepare for. Except maybe to be, as the gospel reading reminds, good.

Back in Germany, my family, the Ricke's, started naming boys Joseph as far back as we have records (16th Century). I wonder if that's because they were laborers? Some brothers came over together from Westphalia and landed in Galveston, Texas in the middle of the 19th Century. My great-great grandfather was Joseph Martin Ricke. My great-grandfather was Martin Joseph Ricke. 

The Ricke boys in Galveston were carpenters. The Joseph Ricke cottage (1851) is on the historic homes tour in Galveston as being the only surviving example (surviving especially the great Galveston hurricane) of a laborer's home from that period. And we know they worked together on the first German Catholic church built in Texas. Obviously, they named it St. Joseph's (1859). Boys did good work. It is a gem. And more real than Plato, I might add.

My grandfather was Joseph Martin Ricke. He and his wife, Pearl, took a break from having Josephs and named their boys Lawrence, John, George, and Charles. And their daughter Joyce. But Lawrence named a daughter Jo Ann. And Charles, my father, named his first son Joseph Martin. 

This piece is already too long. And I'm too tired to wrap it up neatly. So be it. Well, maybe that's the point. Joseph was waiting for what he hoped to be his, at least relatively, neat future. If it was a musical, he could probably sing some happy love song or maybe something about tradition or well-made chairs. Instead. BOOM! Like the bumper stickers say: Christmas Happens

For Joseph it wasn't neat or inspirational or cozy. It was . . . like . . . really? (I should have cued you to do that sigh sound again). Pause. Pause. 
OK. Alright. So what's next? And then he went to work.Work was his Magnificat.

Anyway, I like my name. And my namesake(s). End. of. story. Sigh.

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