We’re nearing the end of the Christmas season, and I’d just like to share some thoughts I’ve had about Jesus’s earthly family as it relates to the ideas on my blog. I’ve been looking for a picture of the Annunciation in which Mary has open hands, without success. This isn’t the first year I’ve thought of Mary that way – and I know I’ve read about others imagining her in that posture. Mary’s reaction to the news that she will bear the Messiah is to verbally acknowledge her willingness to do what God asks of her. She accepts the difficult calling of bearing the Messiah, knowing it will involve being presumed guilty of fornication and not knowing how Joseph will react. She’s a lovely example of holding your hands open for what God gives, even when He calls you to a difficult task. Lewis used the posture of open handed acceptance to represent femininity – though he saw all humans as feminine toward God and therefore believed men should demonstrate this heart-posture as well. I’ve talked before about seeing open handed submission to God’s will as a human trait rather than a specifically feminine one. And this year I’ve noticed that though Joseph’s reaction to the angel’s visit is different from Mary’s, he also exemplifies the posture of open hands.
Most of us are familiar with Mary’s reaction to being told she will be the mother of God. She submits herself to His will with words. ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ Then she goes to see her relative Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist. When John recognizes Jesus when they greet one another, she again responds with words – composing the song of praise we call the Magnificat.
Joseph’s response is different, but also full of receptivity to God’s will. He simply does what he is told. I realized something fascinating while looking at Joseph’s response to the angel’s appearances to him. There are no words spoken by Joseph recorded in the Bible. None. Nada. Zip. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t even ask how high to jump! He just does what God says. In Matthew 1, when he’s realized his fiancée is pregnant and is deciding how to deal with the situation, he has a dream. In his dream, the angel tells him that the baby is God’s and that he should take Mary as his wife, but without consummating the marriage until after Jesus’s birth. Joseph’s reaction? ‘He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.’ (Mt. 1:24-25, ESV) When after the visit from the magi an angel tells him to take Mary and Jesus and run to Egypt, ‘he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.’ (Mt. 2:14, ESV) He didn’t wait until morning. He didn’t ask if maybe, say, Galilee would be far enough. He didn’t ask how long he should stay there, or what would happen to his extended family while he was away. He just believed and obeyed. He did the same thing when instructed to return from Egypt. And when on the way he realized the current ruler might also be a threat and started wondering what he should do, God told him before he even had time to ask and he changed course, heading for Nazareth instead of back to Bethlehem.
I love the way Mary and Joseph exemplify holding your hands open to whatever unexpected task God calls you to. Mary’s words bear witness to her willingness to do hard things – and being pregnant before you were married in those days was a stigma that followed you around until you died, and probably until the kid died, too. People brought it up during Jesus’s ministry. Joseph’s actions bear witness to his willingness to do hard things as well. Family was everything in that culture. If he married Mary, everyone would assume that he was the father – that he didn’t have the self control to wait until marriage – ironic, given that he had to wait nine months or so after the wedding! He obeyed God anyway, at the expense of his reputation. He took Mary with him to Bethlehem, his ancestral home. They probably traveled with extended family as part of a caravan, as it is highly unlikely that Joseph had moved to Nazareth by himself. It’s much more likely that his parents, maybe even with aunts or uncles or grandparents, had moved there as well. And they all had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. They probably stayed with extended family in town. After Jesus’s birth, it seems that the young family intended to stay in Bethlehem. The text indicates that Jesus was past the baby stage – probably between a year and two years old – when the wise men finally arrived after their long journey. (I don’t have a specific source here, but the word used for Jesus refers to a young child rather than an unspeaking infant, and Herod had all the boys under the age of 2 killed – excessive if he was an infant.) They had remained in Bethlehem past the time necessary for Mary to recuperate, and it makes sense that they may have intended to stay there – in his ancestral home, among his relatives. He had presumably been working, building a customer base and a new life there in Bethlehem. Then God called him to take his wife and child, leaving behind his business and all his family connections, and travel to a foreign country where they would be minorities, refugees, probably discriminated against, for an unspecified amount of time. He simply obeyed; packed up his wife and child in the middle of the night. And just imagine how he felt when he heard of the massacre in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, knowing that giving up this one child would have prevented the deaths of others – children of his relatives (as Bethlehem was a very small town). But rescuing this child now meant rescuing everyone thirty years later.
Even the last mention of Joseph – when Jesus is found in the temple at 12 years old – does not record his words, but Mary’s. He was there – he was astonished when they found him, he listened to Jesus’s words about his father’s business, but we are not told what he said.
Another thing that strikes me about that last passage – and I love, love, love this – is that Jesus was submissive to Joseph and Mary. ‘And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.’ (Luke 2:51 ESV) They submitted to God in parenting Jesus, and Jesus – God himself – submitted himself to them. It’s a beautiful picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5 – ‘giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.’
I think the lesson here is that God gives each of us difficult things to do – in the process of teaching us to trust Him. And we can all open our hands to His will, but we will do so in our own way, according to how He made us. I don’t see this words/actions contrast as a masculine/feminine dichotomy – there are plenty of men who respond with words and women who respond with action. But each of us can and should open our hands and our hearts in whatever way is fitting for us and the situation.
Mary gave thanks for being chosen to do hard things for God. Joseph submitted to God’s calling to husband Mary and father Jesus. And Jesus, the Christ, submitted to his earthly parents. Beauty beyond words.
Note: I focus here on submission to God’s will as an aspect of having open hands. I do want to note, however, that it’s only a part of the picture. Having open hands involves letting go of your own expectations, accepting yourself and others, giving to others what God has given to you, and more. So while I see submission as part of having open hands, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s the whole idea. I give a very brief overview here, but I’ve realized I haven’t tried to cover all of Lewis’s idea of femininity in one place. Maybe soon!
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