Mary + Joseph 4ever: A Lesson in Co-Mission
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. (Matthew 1:18-24 CEB)
I cleared my mind and emptied myself of myself as much as I could for the Taizé service, making space for God to enter in. But it didn’t happen. I did not have a vision, or feel the tangible presence of God. I wasn’t even sure why I had come, except to give myself over to God, and I suppose that in itself is worth the time and trouble. I pulled my long gray trench coat off the back of the chair, and swung it around to pull it on. Then I saw it.
Mary and Joseph, cut in silhouette out of metal, with sparkling black paint on their back, and turned toward the wall for some reason, were looking at each other, adoration on their faces.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “They loved each other.”
I don’t think of Mary and Joseph as loving each other. In the first place, I have read the Proto-Gospel of James, in which a bunch of elderly men draw lots to see who has to take Mary as their wife, and Joseph loses, because he has to take her. But even if I dismiss that story, I know enough about ancient marriage to know that love was not a necessary part of the equation. Marriage united families. Women were owned by men and thus daughters were offered up as business transactions. I am sure there were exceptions, but in general, romantic love was not the basis of a good marriage.
Honestly, while I disagree with women being property, I can agree with that last phrase – romantic love is not a basis of a good marriage.
I have been struggling with my understanding of marriage the past couple of years, namely because several marriages I thought were good ones have come apart at the seams. Add to that everyone’s regular dismay that my husband and I have STAYED married, and I have had to spend some deep reflection on the purpose of marriage altogether (there is no abuse in my marriage or anything, people just seem to believe now that you can’t have different political opinions and stay married, even though every couple I knew growing up argued about politics). Also, my denomination is considering blowing apart in part over the question of who should get married. It is all too much right now. I have to admit, I have wondered if anyone should get married anymore.
And then God sent me a metal cutout to turn my thinking in a new direction.
I think the problem is that we have focused on marriage as a covenant. I just spent a month reflecting on covenant for some curriculum I am writing. I would be all for covenants if they actually worked. If we ever kept them, then yay for covenants. The problem is covenants are easily broken, and have always been broken. You can read the Bible as the story of God making covenants and people breaking them. The Bible is the dramatic telling of God trying to find one stinking covenant that we will actually stick with, to pretty much no avail. Hey, there is always the apocalypse – one more shot.
A covenant can be understood in terms of a contract or a promise, both of which Americans seem to have little regard for anymore. When we sign a contract, we look for the loopholes for how we can get out of it if we need to. Or we sue and break it anyway, whatever we need to do to preserve our own self-interests. Promises have become a punchline for politicians – sure, I promise I will do that, right up until I get elected, and then I don’t really have to honor that promise, right?
What was different about Mary and Joseph? Yes, they had a marriage covenant, one that we see Joseph was ready and willing to break as soon as Mary threw a wrench in it. The covenant was not going to hold. What could overcome the weaknesses of a covenant? Perhaps a co-mission.
Mary and Joseph were given a mission to be shared between the two of them: to raise the Son of God. No pressure. The thing about that mission, though, was that it kept the focus off of them and on another. Particularly on God.
Now sure, they had a special, unique mission. But what if those of us who got married saw it as a call and a commission instead of a covenant? First, thinking strictly from a cultural standpoint, Americans hate to fail at our missions. It may be one of the few motivating factors left in us. Second, thinking of it as a call means that some are called into this life, and some are not. It values both the married life and the single life in distinct and God-blessed ways, instead of privileging marriage over singleness. Such privilege drives some people to get married just because they are “supposed” to.
Then if you are commissioned to marriage, the mission that is before you is both simple and profound: bring a piece of God’s reign to earth. Do it by working together to nurture each other’s distinct gifts, by showing agape love to each other, and by creating a space in which the gospel of God’s love is shown and shared with others (certainly to any children that come from the marriage, but more so to anyone who crosses the threshold). Then the focus of the marriage is not, “Well, is this working for ME?” and instead becomes one that asks, “How are we working for God?”
There will still be reasons for marriages to dissolve, such as abuse and infidelity. There will also be reasons for marriage never to occur – can you commit to serving God side-by-side? For those that are a co-mission from God, however, they will become signs of the power and presence of God’s love, a piece of heaven on earth. And that will come from the will of God, and the will of the two people involved. It will take work. It will take concentration. We are, after all, on a mission from God (I dare you not to think of the Blues Brothers now). But then, that is why, in the Methodist marriage liturgy, we don’t say, “I do.” We say, “I will.”
I am sure Mary and Joseph had their bad days. What marriage doesn’t? But there was something special about that relationship – something that made God trust that they could raise God’s son. It was not romantic. It wasn’t even deeply committed at first. It was that God knew they would take the mission seriously.
Outside of that revelation I had in worship the other night, do I KNOW they loved each other? Not with certainty. But I know this: neither of them abandoned the other, even when their society said they should. And when Joseph disappears from the scene after Jesus turns 13 (scholars guess that he died, delaying Jesus’ ministry as he helped raise the other children), Mary did not remarry, again even though her culture would encourage her to do so. Also, they did what they were commissioned to do: they raised the Son of God. All of that feels like love to me. Maybe not chocolates and roses love, but a love that transcended them both.
Thank you, Mary and Joseph, for keeping to your co-mission, and for loving each other beyond the bounds of covenant. Your love and your marriage saved us all.