The Back-Seat Servitude of Fatherhood

Friday in the 3rd Week of Advent: Jeremiah 23:5-8, Matthew 1:18-25.

Today’s readings provide us with further prophecy about the coming Messiah, but from Jeremiah rather than the Advent-friendly Isaiah. Jeremiah gives a unique name for Christ the Messiah: The Lord Our Righteousness. At least most translations phrase it this way, although our lectionary for some reason chooses “The Lord Our Justice.” This raises some interesting thoughts regarding the relationship between righteousness and justice, which we’ll touch on later. But I’d like to stick with righteousness for a moment, because it gives us a lens with which we can explore the gospel reading.

Meditation (mid-1900s), Saul Raskin, (carved ivorine plaque) | Image from artsy.net.

Jeremiah’s passage in the original Hebrew calls the Messiah יְהוָ֥ה ׀ צִדְקֵֽנוּ׃  (Yahweh Tsidkenu). The root here is tsedek, and the -enu is the suffix that means “our”; elsewhere in scriptures we read tsedeka, which is translated as “your righteousness,” almost always applied to God. Why am I making a point of tracing out this word? Because righteousness is at stake in the birth of Christ. Righteousness means a state of blamelessness, of living completely according to God’s law, of being worthy. Let’s not get sidetracked by the modern insult, “she’s so self-righteous.” This casts righteousness in the exact opposite light of what the word means. It is the state of being worthy of praise because one abides by God’s law. Jeremiah proclaims, “This is the name they give him: ‘The LORD Our Righteousness.'” In other words, Jesus Christ’s very name proclaims how His spotless worthiness is the hope and fulfillment of the Jewish people (“our” righteousness). Jeremiah understands that He is the intersection of God’s law made perfect and humanity.

What is a fitting way for the Lord Our Righteousness to come into the world? If righteousness is the key concept, we might expect an exceptional family for Him to be born into. We’re not talking about glory (which is later revealed), so the circumstances are humble. We’re not talking about earthly success and savvy, so the circumstances are poor. No, this is righteousness — a trait we recognize in humans by their willingness to live by God’s Word. The Blessed Virgin Mary is our Queen of Heaven for a reason: she gives us the ultimate example of righteousness with her acceptance of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation and subsequent Incarnation. But there’s more to the family.

St. Matthew’s gospel is the one source that describes Joseph in the detail we hear today. Mark and John skip the Nativity entirely and Luke picks up on the journey to Bethlehem. But Matthew dwells for a moment upon Joseph, deeming it necessary and appropriate to describe the righteousness of Jesus’s family down to the foster father. Joseph, as Matthew tells us, is a very righteous man: “Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” This reaction actually goes above and beyond the law set by the Jews. He could have denounced her publicly and she could have been stoned to death for adultery. This shows his true righteousness because he understands that God’s laws are based on love, and he acts out of love, not retribution.

Saint Joseph (1635), Jusepe de Ribera | Image from fineartamerica.com. I appreciate the way Ribera paints Joseph as focused intently on the voice of God. He was, after all, visited four times by angels who direct his actions in the gospels. 

But next he is visited by an angel in a dream who tells him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” It was a step beyond expectations to divorce her quietly, but now God is asking him to swallow all pride and take her into his home, to trust that God miraculously impregnated the Virgin by the Holy Spirit. It would take an exceptional man to assent here. Everyone would know that Mary was pregnant before their marriage and would likely question whether Joseph was the father given their customary distance prior to marriage. The insinuation would be that he was a cuckold, a pathetic creature who is betrayed sexually by his partner, possibly the biggest blow to a man’s pride that can happen. God is asking Joseph to look past all of this in great humility because something greater and more wonderful is going on: “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” With fidelity and trust in God, this can be seen as an amazing blessing — being given a God-bestowed name for the child and being told that his role will surpass even Messianic hopes for a great king and will instead be a spiritual savior. Through the lens of doubt, however, this could be seen as another blow: not even being able to name the child much less shape his destiny. God is asking Joseph to nearly disappear as a man and a father figure, against even his purest instincts and lawful expectations.

Matthew then relates, in his inimitable reportage style, without fanfare or hints of emotional struggle, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” On the surface, we see a cowed man, stripped of his virility and authority — the very things that “man” has meant likely since the beginning of our race. What a lesson God provides us here, and what a worthy, righteous man in Joseph to do God’s will and become this new man! For it is precisely in the re-fashioning of an authority figure into a slave to God that Joseph helps to save the world through his son, Jesus. Let there be no doubt, Jesus has an earthly father in Joseph, the man who procured food, shelter, and clothing for him and likely taught him a trade not to mention passed down to him his birthright by training him in the Jewish faith. Why couldn’t God simply have worked through Mary, single Mother of God? The answer is partly to teach us that the sacred bond of marriage is grounded in faithfulness to God, and the answer must also be that Joseph can become an icon of a humble, righteous father, willing to take the back seat in servitude.

And this is another key feature of righteousness: a willing servitude to the Father in Heaven. Joseph, we are told, does “as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” He understands his relationship to God; he owes everything he has and everything he is to the Lord our Father. He does not think twice about who his real master is and he willingly follows his commands. I can’t even think of such unbegrudging servitude existing in this contemporary period. We look down on the very concept of servitude — and rightfully so if it is solely defined as servitude to another human being in this fallen world. But servitude to God is the definition of righteousness! Joseph’s willing servitude to God is proof of his righteousness, of his worthiness to be the earthly foster father of Jesus Christ.

Saint Joseph with the Infant Savior (mid 1600s), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo | Image from pixels.com. There’s something I love in this painting even though the facial details are blurry and Jesus is decidedly cherubic here. It might be the attitude of cautious awe I see in Joseph, his unselfconscious willingness to be in the background, gingerly cradling the salvation of all humanity.

Now, let’s open ourselves to something even more amazing. In his righteousness, Joseph is one of the first humans to participate in the new life offered to us by Christ. Jesus is not yet born, yet Joseph has become a servant of the Trinitarian God (including the Son) and allows His saving grace to inhabit him. Let’s look at this with the words of St. Paul in mind: “And having been liberated from sin you were enslaved to righteousness” (Rom 6:18, translation from David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament). In Paul’s mind, Christ’s saving act not only liberates us from sin but enslaves us to righteousness. We have a new master here, bestowed upon humanity by adoption in Christ. Consider that this same transforming love of Christ fills Joseph in his assent to foster-fatherhood, another adoptive relationship, more intimate than the one we will all receive. What’s more, in a way Joseph prefigures the sacrifice his son will make on the cross. He gives his person, his pride, his authority to the Father. We can start to realize that Joseph is the perfect earthly father for Jesus, not a bystander in his life, not a second-rate role in the great drama of salvation history. Joseph is completely caught up in the self-sacrificing love of the Trinity, achieving glory in heaven while humbly, simply seeking to serve his master.

Now that’s justice. Heavenly Justice. So we can also understand if Jeremiah’s title is translated as “The Lord Our Justice” because Christ the Lord is setting right the scale and scope of justice for which we should all aspire in our lives. Justice flows from righteousness, from a re-configuration of one’s heart to God’s will and God’s love.

Let’s end by returning to St. Paul. Living in righteousness himself, Paul was filled with the Spirit, filled with fidelity to God. This enables him to write, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Note that our sanctification, our gift of liberation from death and the promised end of eternal life all have this happy enslavement to God as part of the equation. How many of us happily enslave ourselves to God? Can we follow everything that our conscience, guided by God’s Word and Spirit, presents to us? Can we bring ourselves to do whatever we sense as his will, even if it is as emasculating and potentially embarrassing as what he asked of Joseph? If we can’t, we need to re-evaluate our priorities, because we are not serving our true master. We’re turning our backs on the freedom from enslavement to sin that Christ won for us on the Cross.

If it all sounds too hard, St. Paul has some words of encouragement: “For sin’s wages are death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

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