Last Sunday, what had our attention was Mary and her song of God’s great reversal, God’s upside-down turning efforts. When God’s love reigns, our passage from Luke reminded us the hungry are fed, the unjust powerful is unseated, and the lowly are lifted up.
This morning Joseph takes center stage as Matthew tells how it was that he received some much-needed heavenly help. Instead of quietly dismissing Mary when she was found to be with child, Joseph was pointed in the direction of love’s great aim. Bucking religious and cultural conventions sometimes requires angelic assistance.
Over coffee, we could explore the question of who has a harder time going against the grain of social norms—men or women. But for now, I want to tell you about someone of Joseph’s age who has done just that.
We’ll call this Western Slope fellow Justin. Quite by accident, I happened upon a video Justin made in which he addressed how our culture encourages us to place ourselves in the center of the lives we’re living. We’re the heroes in our stories, in other words.
We’ve all seen gross examples of this, of course. The person at the party who just won’t stop talking about themselves. The public figure who paints himself or herself as larger than life. The kind of self-centering Justin was talking about is more nuanced than this. Let me give an example drawn from a colleague’s ministry.
A couple returned to her church, their home church, after having lived at length in a distant community. On their first Sunday back, the couple walked down the sanctuary aisle to what had been “their spot” for probably twenty years before they left town. But when they got there, it was already occupied. Rather than find a new place to sit, the husband leaned over and whispered, “Could you move? You’re in our spot.”
It’s not that the guy went through life like some entitled jerk. It’s that it genuinely hadn’t occurred to him that when he and his wife moved, life at that church would naturally continue on without him. That keeping his memory alive and his place in the pews open would not turn into a congregational priority.
Back to Justin now. Once Justin made his point about how we so easily and naturally make ourselves the main characters, the protagonists of our own stories, he made a pivot I wasn’t expecting.
“I have decided that I don’t need to be the main character, the hero, in this story, I am living. I don’t want or need to spend my life taking center stage.”
Justin went on to say that he wanted to devote his life to being a supporting character in other people’s stories. Rather than being the star of his own show, Justin genuinely wanted to help others fulfill their dreams, to be there for them in whatever ways they might need. Not taking center stage but supporting, Justin said, was his joy, his purpose, and his lifelong promise.
I have no idea what brought Justin to this understanding. All I know is that this is an uncommon posture and path for an American man in his early 30s. As Fr. Richard Rohr has often observed, especially when we are in our early 30s, we are most focused on our ascents, our achievements, on keeping our eyes on our personal prizes—whatever those might be. What some of us master then, we never quite leave behind—that we are the sun and others are the planets who revolve around us.
For whatever reason, Justin was not interested in living this way. Which is why he reminds me so much of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. With the help of an angel who came to him one night, Joseph surrendered the spotlight so that Mary and her heaven-sent baby could shine.
What an unusual man Joseph turned out to be. The role he plays in the Nativity is small enough that we might not really notice if he slipped out of sight altogether.
This was the case with a creche I bought years ago. The set came without a figurine for Joseph, something that took me the longest time to realize.
We don’t know much about Joseph, but we can safely assume that from the time he was little, he did what every other boy child his age did—he dreamed about the life he would create for himself. Surely this dreaming continued while Joseph courted Mary and then when the two became engaged.
What was Joseph’s dream? It was probably like every man’s dream in that time and place. Surely he pictured himself being the head of the household and the family breadwinner. Like the men in his own family and the men in his community, like almost every man in the ancient world, surely Joseph assumed that he would occupy center stage and that everyone else would naturally, happily play supporting roles.
How remarkable a soul Joseph turned out to be. With an angel’s encouragement, he abandoned his own dreams for himself to help fulfill God’s dreams. He was able to set aside the weighty expectations of his culture and religion to continue on with Mary when he could have easily dismissed her.
What love it must have taken for Joseph to be willing to play a supporting role and not have the spotlight as every other man surely would. What revolutionary love, even, since men in Joseph’s world were not in the habit of standing off to the side while their women took center stage. Men were not accustomed to being the ones who remained silent while their women did all the talking, which is the case in our Christmas story.
Recalling Justin’s video, I would say he qualifies as a modern-day Joseph, a man willing to surrender the spotlight so that others with worthy, even holy pursuits might rightly have it.
The same could be said for Michelle Obama, too. Although not for the reason you might think.
In a Today Show appearance from her White House days, the first lady spoke of the white-hot spotlight she was under and how it can blind or overwhelm. “The thing I always keep in mind is that none of this is about us in public service; it’s about the people we serve. I always try to push the light back out and focus it on the folks that we are actually here to serve.”
Think about how big a person needs to be to genuinely want to make others their focus. Think about how anchored in your own worthiness you would need to be able to consistently elevate and honor the intrinsic worthiness of others.
Especially during this holy season, we more naturally decenter ourselves and make those around us the rightful focus. No doubt all of you have been preoccupied lately with this. In the forefront of your hearts and minds are the people you love and the ways you can highlight the central place they occupy in your life.
Even still, the temptation to center ourselves can and does creep in.
I’m thinking here not about individuals so much as American Christians who believe that this is our month, our time. These Christians resent hearing or being asked to say “Happy Holidays.” To their minds, this negates the centrality of Christ, the centrality of their faith.
But the truth is that Christians at this time of year must be willing to make room. Christians don’t have an exclusive claim on the calendar. We aren’t the only ones with sacred traditions this month.
Every world religion right now is celebrating something significant. While we Christians go about preparing for the birth of the Christ, others are focused on their own holy days, including our Jewish siblings for whom Hanukkah begins tonight and concludes on December 26th.
To insist that we should all be saying “Merry Christmas” is to center our faith at the expense of others. It’s an understandable but unacceptable negation of the presence of other ways, other traditions, and a slight to those who embrace no tradition at all. Honestly, insisting that we all say “Merry Christmas” is the opposite of Joseph’s example today.
And Jesus’ example, of course. Although we may have been raised to imagine that Jesus went around with a perpetual spotlight trained on him, if you look closely at his ministry, you see him consistently doing what Joseph does in our story today. Jesus makes himself smaller so that others can rightly shine.
In our familiarity with the Nativity story, we may lose sight of God’s habit of casting parts differently than the world does. God mixes everything and everyone up.
Jesus certainly understood this. In his mind, the stars of God’s show were all the wrong people—the dispossessed, the diseased, the discouraged, the forlorn, and the forsaken. Jesus stepped toward all those relegated to the shadows. He made his priority to people who were standing on the edge of life’s stage without so much as a line to speak.
Instead of strutting his stuff, Jesus made the decentered his priority. He put them in love’s spotlight. And whenever he did this, he would take a step back so that they could shine as God’s beloveds. “No, it’s not really me who healed you,” Jesus so often said, “it was you and your faith.”
Jesus was far more invested in elevating and honoring us than he was in uplifting his own reputation and his own distinctiveness. Jesus was more impressed with us than he was himself. Remember in John’s gospel how he said, “You, you will go on to do and be greater things than I.” You can almost imagine him throwing out his arms as performers do to their partners on stage, saying, “Take it away!”
The opposite of a person like Joseph or Jesus, or even Justin, is someone like Herod. Someone so inwardly small that he has to puff himself up and take up a lot of space to compensate for whatever he feels he lacks.
It takes a big person to want to play a supporting role in someone else’s story. And it takes a big people to trust, as Joseph did, as Jesus did, that God’s light is waiting to shine out of those we might least expect.
Let us pray: If your eyes are even on the sparrow, O God, help us notice who this is. Enable us to decenter ourselves so that we can play our rightful parts in your ongoing, even urgent, work of love and justice.