joseph: surviving his own destruction

(Fr. Cyprian)

I have learned this much about developmental psychology, and it’s become kind of a guiding principle, a kind of first truth for me in dealing with myself and with others: that every child has a legitimate need to be noticed, to be understood, to be taken seriously and respected. Understand this is a need that the child has for a “mirror” (in my words), somebody to give the child her self or his self, someone to gaze into the child’s eyes and not project their own needs and expectations onto the child, but rather to give him his own self, to see a subject rather than an object. That’s how children come into healthy contact with their individual strength and self-esteem. But there is another step yet for really healthy parents and mentors, and that is to be secure enough to allow the child to rebel, to let the child to be angry, to allow the child to not like something, in a sense to let the child break off without it being taken as a negative reflection back on the parent or mentor. The phrase that the German therapist Alice Miller uses that struck me like a bullet was that a child needs a “usable self-object (ie., a parent or mentor) that can survive its own destruction.”

And that’s what I think is going on with Joseph. Right from the very start Joseph gets left out, destroyed, done away with. Of course we know what a proud thing it was to trace the father’s bloodline. So we trace Joseph’s bloodline in Luke back to Adam, in Matthew back to Abraham––and then it gets cut off, because he had no relations with Mary! We are let known right away that something new is happening. As John says in the prologue to his Gospel, Jesus was one born not by blood or by desire of the flesh, not by human will, but born of God. And this will be a theme of Jesus’ throughout his ministry until after his death as the Christian movement sweeps Palestine and Europe: that even the bloodline of Abraham doesn’t matter anymore. This is how the gentiles get included in, even without circumcision! The first covenant has been fulfilled, abrogated. In a sense it too has survived its own destruction; it dies like a seed in the soil and springs up anew as the Gospel. So both Matthew and Luke, right after tracing Jesus’ lineage back to or through Abraham, record John the Baptist preparing the way by saying, ‘Don’t pride yourself on the claim that Abraham is our father. God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if he wanted to.’ The Gospel collapses any sort of belonging that is based merely on cultural inheritance or solely on biological paternity, and in its place offers a whole different kind of belonging, a paternity, a maternity, a fraternity, a sorority that is not at all dependent on culture or biology: not of human blood nor by desire of the flesh, not born of human will but born of God, those who have the mind of Christ, those who have been grafted on the vine.

Unfortunately, our culture and our biology don’t always lead us into the ways of truth, goodness, unity and beauty. At least it’s safe to say that culture or biology on their own are just not enough. They often actually lead us to just the opposite; often we have to unlearn what has been taught us by our culture or by our families of origin. So, perhaps this is where the infamous difficult sayings of Jesus come from such as Matt. 10:35: For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. All our relationships become, if you’ll excuse the pun, relative to and subordinate to the spiritual relationship. Even our mothers and fathers at some point become our brothers and sisters, and it’s a whole new level playing field, and the Gospel is a corrective and supplement to every relationship.

This is why I find it so interesting that these readings are offered today for St Joseph: Nathan telling David that God will raise up an heir after him, sprung from his very loins; and then we hear Psalm 89 praise the Son of David whose posterity is confirmed forever; but then we get to Joseph who is the first eunuch for the sake of the reign of God, because in the reign of God it is not human blood nor desire of the flesh that matters, nor culture or biology, not all those who cry “Lord, Lord”, nor human will at all, but rather it’s the poor in spirit who belong, like Joseph. It’s not the seed of Abraham but the seeds that allow themselves to fall to the ground and die so that they may yield a rich harvest through perseverance, like Joseph who survived his own destruction and still went on to act as guardian for this child and his mother.

I don’t want to be sexist about it, but I think this is wonderful model for male spirituality, but certainly a great model for anyone involved in ministry. So let’s use Joseph as our guide today, and pray that we too may be secure enough to able to survive our own destruction, that we can be for each other a “self-object,” a mirror reflecting each other each other’s beauty and goodness. May we learn too not to sit on the laurels not just of our biological background, but also not of our cultural backgrounds, because the Gospel serves as an antidote to what ails us still, as a corrective, a completion and goal. We may be the seed of all these things, but we must be children of God through the transforming Spirit that has been poured into our hearts and onto the Body of Christ, because … if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new![1]



[1] 2 Cor. 5:17

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