Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:
Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.
My version of Mary is influenced by The Gospel of the Origin of the Blessed Version and the Childhood of the Savior, now generally known as The Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew, written in the early 7th century for a Christian community clamoring for Jesus prequels, and from the Protevangelium, written about fifty years after the Gospel of Luke was laid down. Both were important sources for medieval sacred art.
Mary is was the only daughter of Joachim and Anna, two extremely righteous people who found themselves childless in middle age. Despite his piety and charity, Joachim (much like Job) was suspected of wickedness by his neighbors, here because God had opted to refuse them children. We see echoes of the many other late-in-life-miraculous pregnancies in the Bible here, as their prayers are answered, and Anna becomes pregnant with Mary.
They dedicate Mary to the temple where she goes to live and serve, but as she nears menstrual age the temple priests start to fret. She has to leave before she gets her period, which would defile the holy place. So, with much ceremony to determine a match suitable for such a miraculous child, the priests arrange an engagement between twelve-year-old Mary and Joseph, at whose home she goes to live until she reaches fourteen, at which point their marriage will be consummated.
Now we get to the canonical Gospels, and Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her soul doth magnify the Lord, yeah, but she’s also barely a teenager and I expect that the attention of the visitors is a little overwhelming, so I drew her curled up, trying to process the magnitude of the whole thing.
This version of Joseph is influenced by the Gospel of James, or the Protevangelium, written about 60 years after the Gospel of Matthew, and he was probably created/developed in order to support the pet theory on the part of some early Christians that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. There are a few bits of scripture that run afoul of this concept, but outside of semantic wording there’s still a really big obstacles on this notion: Jesus’s brothers and sisters.
Centuries later there have been plenty of other explanations proffered, but the easiest one (and the one latched on to by early adherents) was that Joseph had been married before he was engaged to Mary, and that the six siblings of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament –Simon, Joseph Jr, Judas (a different one), James, and two unnamed sisters (do they number two in the gospels? I can’t remember, but the plural “sisters” means at least two) – are technically Mary’s stepchildren.
So here’s the story: The priests at the Temple know Mary needs to get married off, but because of the special circumstances surrounding her birth they want to make sure that whatever match occurs is good in the eyes of God. So they summon all of the bachelors in good standing (Joseph, at this point, is a widower), and perform a ceremony to try and discern who God would wish to be Mary’s husband. Joseph goes out of religious obligation, but doesn’t really want to be there. He’s old in his own eyes. He’s had a happy marriage and he misses his wife and he has a bunch of kids, some of whom are already grown, and he doesn’t want to be an old dad with a wife not much older than his youngest child. So he just pays lip service to the ceremony and when all the men are supposed to present their staffs he keeps his at his side. Nothing happens, and the priests do the ceremony again (“we’re not leaving here ‘til God gives us a sign”). One notices that Joseph is basically lip-synching, and they insist he participates. When he does, a dove flies over and lands on his staff.
So Joseph is stuck. He doesn’t want to marry this kid, but the priests insist that it’s his religious obligation.
In some later versions of this story, Mary comes to live at Joseph’s home during the engagement (not unlikely; she wouldn’t have been able to continue living at the temple), learning to run the household and helping to raise (babysit) James, a few years her junior.
Now we get to the Gospel version, which I think finds greater depth via the prequel-reluctant-husband story.
Joseph is engaged to Mary and discovers that she’s pregnant. And he chooses to quietly divorce her (the marriage is pretty much in play once the engagement is solidified; it’s the consummation that finalizes it, held off in this instance because of Mary’s youth) rather than make public her condition or insist on punishment.
Joseph has always been my favorite character in the Bible, and it’s because of this. Even before the story has him learning of the divinity of her pregnancy, he harbors no ill will to her, no desire to reclaim honor by vengeance, no chastisement, nothing of the social barbarity (by our/my standards) that speaks to the time and place and culture from whence he sprung. And from the time I was a kid, I found more nobility in that than near on anything else in the whole book.
The version of Joseph espoused by the early church may have been crafted to explain this calm and measured and merciful side, much at odds with his legalistic predecessors. Joseph is older, so he has the wisdom of experience to recognize and forgive youthful mistakes. He has children, so the usurpation of his bride’s babymaker by another sire doesn’t threaten his bloodline. From a pragmatic fatherly standpoint, his teen biological sons may be at risk of fatal punishment were they suspected of the adulterous union, the most likely paramours given household proximity. And Joseph was a reluctant bridegroom in the first place, so he would likely see Mary’s pregnancy as a blessing, a means by which to remove himself from the engagement through no abandonment of responsibility on his part.
In The Gospel of Matthew Joseph is told in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is divine, and that God wishes him to wed her.
Though some dogma insists that Joseph was wholeheartedly faithful in his belief of this (there’s even a school of thought championed by St. Thomas Aquinas in which Joseph never suspected any hanky panky and knew that Mary could only have conceived divinely and that the divorce was because he thought himself unworthy, which is such a stretch as to boggle my noggin), but I like reflecting on the perpetual doubt that Joseph must have felt. I prefer my religious figures humanized, and Joseph is at his most admirably human when he discards suspicion, and it doesn’t matter whether that acceptance is rooted in fervent belief or simply the possibility of that belief. That he opts to wed, that he chooses to raise the child as his own, this is the first example we get of the direction that the New Testament will take, this sense of throwing off the legalism of the previous generations for the love and mercy that will be at the heart of Christianity.
My version here has a super fancy staff, much grander than his station would suggest, that I figure he might have made himself as a hobby project, because, you know, carpenter.
Advent Calendar Day 3: James
James, as depicted here, is Joseph’s youngest biological son, still part of his household, and, as such, likely to have traveled with them to Bethlehem. I have him gathering firewood, as I assume he’d have been the one to run errands, get food, etc, as Joseph stayed near Mary for the sake of both safety and propriety.
In church and narrative tradition, James serves as a counter to Paul in the early church, treating Christianity not as a new religion but as a sect within Judaism. He and Paul are at odds over whether Christ’s message is for the Jews or for the entire world. The apostle Peter serves as their negotiator, espousing a middle path of compromise. James, in a dual role a high priest of the temple AND a bishop of the early Christian church (not, at the time, conflicting stations) serves as a kind of Chief Justice for early church decisions, and accepts Paul’s dogma-shattering recommendation that gentile converts needn’t behave according to Jewish social contract, but with the caveat that certain other behavioral law be implemented.
It’s James, I think, from whom we get the legalistic tradition of Christianity, at least symbolically. Sure, any religion is going to codify behavioral principles over time, but James’ influence directly steers the notion of distinct cultures maintaining their practices in full while still converting to this new faith into what we instead eventually get, which is the desire on the part of the church that the faithful homogenize into the existing Christian culture. I don’t know if this is a widely-held view, or if it’s held at all, but it’s my take on the fella.
Advent Calendar Day 4: Uriel and Lil’ John the Baptist
Jesus’s cousin John, who will later grow up to be the wild-eyed desert mystic and prophet of the Gospels, is probably about six months older than Jesus, and thus presented a problem for theologians who accepted the version of events in which Herod ordered the slaughter of all Hebrew children under the age of two (a deliberate echo by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to Pharaoh’s edict thirteen hundred years earlier). Why wasn’t John killed?
The story that evolved was that he was spirited away to join the Holy Family whence they had fled in Egypt, and the vehicle of his deliverance was the angel Uriel. You can see a version of this story in the DaVinci painting “Virgin of the Rocks.”
Uriel is, according to Rabbinic tradition, one of the four archangels (the four that we’ve culturally come to accept are Uriel, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, listed by name in the Book of Enoch, composed between 100 and 300 BCE).
Angels are tricky. We often take “Messenger of God” mentions as being angels, though context makes it unlikely that they looked inhuman, and rarely is there anything contextual (though theologically there is opposition to this idea) to conflict with the idea that the messengers ARE men, used by God for His purpose. When angels are identified as angels and described, often in the apocalyptic genre with books like Daniel and Revelations, man, they are out there.
Uriel here takes his design partially from Daniel 10 (dressed in linen, belt of gold, eyes like torches, face like lightning, skin like burnished bronze) and partially from Ezekiel, where I pulled the four-faces thing (though this springs up in plenty of other books and in other forms). I gave him human feet instead of calf hooves, though.
Lil’ John here hints at his future in the wilderness, with his filthy matted hair and casual feral nudity.