CENTRAL PANEL, ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE, 1506-1515
“Blessed are the peace-makers,” said Christ, and we have only to look to the Holy Family for an example. Can anyone possibly imagine St. Joseph being a general? For St. Joseph to have been a general or even a soldier would have been so wrong, on so many levels, as to be unimaginable. It would have been as wrong, in its way, had Mary been an abortionist.
Impossible to imagine Joseph coming home from a hard day’s work of, say, scourging, washing the blood off his hands, sitting down to dinner, and saying, “Well, well, little Jesus, let me tell you about the bad man to whom I administered justice today.” Impossible to imagine that a man whose master was Caesar or Herod or the Pharisees should have raised the Son of Man. That Christ would have learned what it is to be a man from a man who “enjoyed” war is inconceivable. The people who enjoyed war crucified him.
Christ said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matthew 10:34]. He didn’t mean the sword of violence, though. The operative point of the cleansing of the temple was not that Christ got mad—he got mad frequently. The operative point was not that Christ finally spoke up for himself: Christ always spoke up for himself. The point of the cleansing of the temple was not that it was out of character, but that it was entirely in keeping with the character that Christ had displayed all along. The operative point was that he told the truth, knowing he was setting himself up to have the Pharisees kill him.
One way to think of the “sword” Christ spoke of is the sword that tends toward purifying our forever-mixed motives. A mother will sacrifice for her son for the pleasure of basking in the reflected glory of his success. A father will sacrifice for his family knowing the social prestige and manliness that will thereby accrue.
All that was stripped from both Mary and Joseph.
Joseph fought one of the hardest battles it is possible to fight for a man: the battle against seeing his wife as chattel, as an extension of his ego; against clinging to the familial, cultural status accorded to the head of a household that would otherwise have inured and made “worthwhile” the sacrifice of supporting for and caring for a family. He stayed when it appeared to him, and possibly to the world, as if he had been cuckolded while still engaged. He stayed when it appeared that not only had Mary been unfaithful to him; she had been unfaithful to God. He stayed, not for a moment holding it against Mary. He stayed, knowing that Christ was not the fruit of his loins, and gave Jesus his whole heart, his livelihood, his guidance, insight and love. He stayed, taking his rightful place as head of the household, while also acknowledging, accommodating, and revering the fact that Mary had her own calling. He consented to stay in the background when another lesser man would have felt the need, out of a bruised ego, to assert himself. He stayed, and was faithful to his marriage vows. He stayed, working with his hands, handling the wood he loved. He stayed, and risked being called a coward, less than a man, and insufficiently forceful with his wife.
Similarly, Mary overcame the hardest thing it is possible for a woman to overcome: her desire to cling; to possess that which she loves; to manage, control, and become proprietary. This, too, is partly a biological urge. She could have said no to the angel Gabriel. She could have aborted Christ, and thereby averted the neighbors’ gossiping and putting herself, the prospective child, Joseph and the rest of her family in peril. She could have killed Christ as an infant so as to “spare” him from being killed by Herod.
Instead, at every step of the way she said yes to life and no to death. At every step of the way she was ready to die so that someone else might live. At every step of the way, she displayed extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness—because to say yes to life requires extreme tenderness and extreme fierceness (and extreme courage, grace, and class). But at no point did either she or Joseph exercise violence toward others when violence was directed toward them. She was Abraham, except this time the knife over the neck of her beloved son was not stilled. She stayed, and witnessed what is probably the most excruciating thing a mother can witness: the brutal execution of her innocent son. And still, she endured; still, she surrendered completely; still, she loved.
The Crucifixion is always and forever a scandal. Even those of us who love him are a little ashamed, a little appalled, a little embarrassed. I mean couldn’t he have stuck up for himself? Why didn’t he call down the wrath of God? Did he have to die like that? Even those of us who love him want to gloss over the Crucifixion.
But the Crucifixion is the central emblem of our faith; the rock upon which Christianity is built. wills.
From yesterday’s Magnificat reflection:
“Faith is not a thing of the mind; it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction of the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of my life. It is to live out each hour in a practical, concrete affirmation that God is Father and he is ‘in heaven.” It is a decision to shift the center of our lives from ourselves to him, to forego self-interest and make his interests, his will, our sole concern. This is what it means to hallow his name as Father in heaven.”
–Sister Ruth Burrows, O.C.D.
Unthinkable, abortion, with Mary and Joseph as models. Theirs is the kind of radical letting go, detachment, and surrender to which we are called. This is no namby-pamby “spirituality.” This is no self-indulgent program of prosperity, exotic travel, and “true love.”
Reality is not, nor has it ever been, for the faint of heart.
DETAIL, ISENHEIM ALTARPIECE