“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife…” Matthew 1:24
The story of Jesus’ birth is so familiar that we are numbed to its subtler meanings. Issues of social justice and courage lie deep in this well-known narrative, particularly when considered from the Joseph’s perspective. In him we see how listening invokes a love that is prepared to do courageous things.
Joseph represents the dominant status within the Jewish culture . As a male he had access to rights and privileges of his time. Women, in this society, held little status or control over their circumstances. Mary and Joseph’s engagement represented an arrangement over which Mary had no choice. Once engaged, their relationship took on the equivalency of marriage; meaning Joseph was in authority over Mary.
One such privilege held by Joseph was the right to have his fiancé hauled before religious authorities and stoned when he learned of her pregnancy. We can surmise he was a man of compassion because Matthew tell us he chose the non-violent path by wanting to quietly “dismiss” Mary, saving her from public disgrace. This seems like a magnanimous choice! In fact, it appears to be counter-cultural and therefore, courageous. Yet, Joseph’s desire to do this “quietly” could be interpreted as a passive act. Yes, he protected Mary and the unborn child, but he did not fully embrace her.
The transformation to love comes only after Joseph listens. The angel of the Lord speaks in a dream noticeably calling Joseph to “not be afraid” and take Mary as his wife. The angel called Joseph to have courage and break through dominant culture with an act of love and justice! Joseph listened and followed the angel’s words! It was in the moment of listening, in the quiet of a dream, that Joseph chose love which prepared him for courage! The courage began by taking Mary, going to Bethlehem, being present at the birth of Jesus and bravely traveling as refugees to Egypt in order to keep the child safe! Joseph loved and found courage because he listened.
As a spiritual director, I understand there to be a deep connection between listening and our ability to love enough to engage in ministries of social justice! The contemplative aspect of our lives makes space for us to hear and to love as God calls us to love. I am a Eurocentric woman and thus, on the second tier of today’s dominant culture. For me, as a Baptist, this position calls me to listen both to God’s divine voice as well as to those whose life experience comes from different perspectives than mine. When I pause in silent meditation, my heart is open to hear what life is like for someone else.
Love grows in me when my heart is open through listening. Several years ago I participated in a peer group learning experience. The group, all women clergy, was made up of four African American women and three Euro American women. We listened to each other and found a bond of love that held us together in our differences and similarities. From these sisters in ministry, a season of preparation for courage settled in me.
The season of Advent invites us into the stillness of listening to God and others. For those of us in the dominant culture Advent listening creates a space for love to deepen. Once deepened, this love speaks into our lives preparing us to be courageous; to be bold; to do justice and love kindness because we have listened as Joseph listened. Then incarnation enters the world anew.
Rev. Judy Fackenthal is the President of American Baptist Churches, USA and the Pastor of Garfield Park Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.