What W.H. Auden knows about Joseph

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My shoes were shined, my pants were cleaned and pressed,
And I was hurrying to meet
  My own true Love.


So begins “The Temptation of Joseph,” from W.H. Auden’s poem cycle, “For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio.” In Auden’s imagining, this part of the story is taking place in a pub in London during the 1940s.

The bar was gay, the lighting well-designed
And I was sitting down to wait
  My own true Love.
A voice I’d heard before, I think,
Cried: “This is on the House. I drink
  To him
Who does not know it is too late”;
  When I asked for the time,
Everyone was very kind.


Everyone was very kind… or filled with that kind of sympathy and pity that only barely conceals what everyone is really thinking. And so, a chorus of off-stage voices speaks:

Mary may be pure
But, Joseph are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance… Well…

Particularly at this time of the year, so much attention is paid to the story of the Annunciation, and so much devotion built around a young woman’s willingness to hear the angel Gabriel and to respond, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And why shouldn’t that be the case? A young woman, probably no older than 15, betrothed to be married but still living in her parents’ home in an insignificant city in a country that mattered little when it came to power and prestige… it is on her consent—“may it be done as you have said”—that the whole story of God’s way with the world turns. Yes, tell that story, and paint great pieces of art, and compose extraordinary music, for the story of Mary really must catch our imaginations.

But every three years, listen as the lectionary invites us to try to see things from Joseph’s side of the story. When Joseph figures in paintings, it is most often in a nativity scene, where he’s generally a step removed and often looking on with an expression that might be taken as slightly resigned, if not quite indifferent. Luke gives us the Magnificat or song of Mary, but in the Gospel according to Matthew there is no corresponding song of Joseph, and so there has been no liturgical music, hymns or carols written to express his voice. In fact, in the story we read tonight Joseph never actually speaks. He is spoken to by the angel, and we’re told how he responds. We’ve even told that when the baby was finally born “he named him Jesus,” but none of gospels actually let us hear Joseph’s voice. Which is why I am so taken with Auden’s poem, because Auden, I think, has heard Joseph; and in hearing Joseph I think he can help us hear something of ourselves.

Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” It would have been a rare man in that time and cultural context who would have been concerned for the reputation of a woman he fairly assumed had cheated on him; probably a rare man even in our own time. “But”—and this is one of those significant little words that keep popping up in the biblical texts—“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” Joseph, you are a righteous man and kind, unwilling to shame the young woman to whom you are pledged in betrothal… but now the call placed on you is even higher. Perhaps not of quite the same order as that which has been asked of Mary, but in a way it isn’t all that far off…

Auden describes Joseph as sitting in the dark, “Caught in the jealous trap / of an empty house,” haunted by the sounds heard in an empty and lonely building. And in that lonely space, Joseph cries out,

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.

To which the angel Gabriel answers a simple, “No.” And then Joseph again:

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

Ask yourself, though, as Auden writes of the need for “one important and elegant proof,” do you think he has only Joseph in mind? Might he also be struggling, maybe with the very idea of this particular birth? Maybe that characteristically modern need to make sense of a virgin birth is part of what troubles Auden. While already in New Testament times some thought it a bizarre and unbelievable concept, it is really from the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment that it has become more routinely a matter of serious skepticism. One must “demythologize” the gospels, the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann began to argue in the 1920s, and one of the first things to go was belief in the virgin birth. Yet a focus on the narrowly factual and rationally believable— things for which important and elegant proofs might be generated—leaves imaginations utterly wanting, and misses the deeper truths of the story. Interestingly, in our time it is often women writers like Madeline L’Engle and Kathleen Norris who are untroubled by these stories, and whose writings have taught us to again read them in deep and ancient ways.

I actually suspect Auden had more immediate and pressing matters in view. The poem was published in 1944, when the Second World War still very much on. With sons and fathers dying on European battlefields and bombs falling on cities across the land, it was increasingly difficlut to have much faith in God. Is Auden giving voice to that question of where God is when a son is killed in battle or the bombs begin to fall? Ask the question, then, right alongside of Joseph and Mary as they watch the Roman soldiers march the streets of Nazareth, or hear news of Herod’s death squads heading toward Bethlehem.

Is that all there is, this violence? Where might a deeper hope lie? Listen to the prophet Isaiah speak to King Ahaz of Judah at a time when Jerusalem is seriously under siege. “Look,” says Isaiah, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [and] before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good”—before he is even grown up, in other words—this military threat to Jerusalem will be over and done with. In the scriptures, when things get really bad there often comes news of some surprising, unexpected, maybe even impossible birth.

And so to Joseph’s request for important and elegant proof,  Auden imagines Gabriel responding:

No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.

It is not meant to be a mute or helpless silence, but one marked by the kind of stillness that only comes when one’s hands are held open to the impossible. There is in that a kind of stubborn and resilient faith; one so very different from merely blind acceptance. It is one marked not by naïveté, but by transformative hope. Advent hope.

Words from another poet to close. This is a verse from Madeline L’Engle’s poem O Sapientia (O Wisdom), in which she places herself in Mary’s shoes. Listen, and know what is made possible when two ordinary people trust the angels of God:

It was from Joseph first I learned
Of love. Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
Me from his house; but unafraid,
He put me not away from him
(O God-sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.

Marking this, the fourth and final Sunday in the season of Advent, know that it is also through our love—our hands open to the possible impossible—that a greater Love is both obeyed and known.

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