It’s said that when Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist Pastor and the Father of the Social Gospel from a 100 years ago, prayed that it felt like if you stretched out your hands that you would actually touch God. Walter Rauschenbusch’s prayers created “thin places” – at least that’s what Celtic Christians call them. A “thin place” according to Celtic Christianity is a moment in time,an experience in life, or a spot on the map, where it feels like the distance between heaven and earth narrows just a little bit, and God draws in closer to us. I’ve known a number of these “thin places” in my life. There’s a favorite cove on the Oregon Coast. There’s a little cinderblock church on a corner in Southern California. There are half a dozen places in Israel, and there’s a monastery in the mountains just outside of Santa Fe. All of these have been important “thin places” for me. Oh yeah, and there’s a museum, an art museum in Pasadena, California – the Norton Simon Museum of Art.
If you’ve ever watched a Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, then you’ve seen the Norton Simon Museum. It’s that building directly across the street from where all the national networks set up their cameras and position their celebrity commentators for their broadcasts. Norton Simon was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who assembled a truly impressive collection of art through the years. In 1974 he took possession of this space in Pasadena to make his art collection available to the general public. It’s a little gem of an art museum. Mary Lynn and I visited it for the first time not long after it first opened, and it was as we were systematically making our way through its galleries moving from painting to painting that we eventually arrived at Giovanni Battista Gualli’s painting of “St. Joseph and the Infant Christ” tucked away in a quiet corner. (https://www.nortonsimon.org/art/detail/F.1973.36.P/)
Norton Simon said that he wanted his museum to be like a church. He wanted it to be a place where people could have encounters with the eternal and the transcendent through the power and beauty of the art that he loved. And that’s certainly what happened to me the first time that I stood in front of this little painting. Spiritually, it transported me to another place and another time. I wasn’t standing in an art museum in Pasadena any longer, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I was standing in the presence of God.
Now, I’ve had a lot of time through the years to think about why this painting had that effect on me the first time I saw it. It’s certainly beautiful, and masterfully painted. But the Norton Simon Museum is full of beautiful and masterfully painted pictures, and none of them had the same effect on me that this one did on that day long ago. Its content is a bit unexpected, maybe even surprising. We’re much more accustomed to seeing paintings of Mary holding the infant Christ. There just aren’t that many paintings out there of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. They exist, I’ve seen some, but none of them has touched me in quite the same way that this one did. When Mary Lynn and I first saw this painting, a family of our own was just over the horizon of our future. Standing there on the edge of fatherhood myself, I’m sure that I had a certain sensitivity to images of fatherhood, especially images of fatherhood drawn from the Biblical story, but I don’t remember any other image of fatherhood from those days having the same impact on me that this one had. So, if it wasn’t any of these things, then what was it that grabbed hold of me spiritually when I first saw this painting? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was Joseph’s face in this painting that “got”me. It was the look in Joseph’s eyes as he stared down at that little baby in his arms that pulled me into the mystery of the Biblical story about the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea in such a powerful way. What is that look? What’s in those eyes? Is it love, surprise, wonder, fear, doubt, shock, confusion, worry, dread?
When I think about that look Joseph’s face in this painting, it’s Tisha Yearwood’s song “It Wasn’t his Child” that I hear playing somewhere softly in the background,
He was her man, she was his wife, and late one winter night, He knelt by her as she gave birth, but it wasn’t his child… It wasn’t his child. Still he took him as his own, and as he watched him grow, it brought him joy. But it wasn’t his child, it wasn’t his child. Like a father he was strong and kind and good, and I believe that he did his best. It wasn’t easy for him, but he did all that he could, his son was different from the rest, It wasn’t his child, it wasn’t his child… It was God’s child…
It’s easy for us to overlook what was emotionally and spiritually involved in Joseph’s decision to become part of the Divine arrangement that brought Jesus Christ into the world as Mary’s baby to be our Savior. Joseph must have had his dreams. Surely, he was busy making plans for his future, a future with his betrothed, Mary. In his time and place, women were passengers on the trains of their husband’s lives. I’m not suggesting that this was right, I’m only saying that this is how it was in Joseph’s world, and the train of Joseph’s life was just about to leave the station with Mary onboard when that angel showed up one night in a dream with the news that there was going to be a change of trains.
Joseph’s life had already started to unravel by this point in the story. Joseph already knew that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant, and that he wasn’t the father. We catch a whiff of the scandal that this created for Joseph with the talk of divorce in our Scripture lesson this morning (1:19). The news of Mary’s pregnancy had exploded in Joseph’s life and heart like a bomb, and he was just trying to survive the wound it had created in him and his world. And that’s when that angel showed up and said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). Does this explain what’s on Joseph’s face in that painting? Is this what that look in his eyes is all about?
In the icon of the Nativity in the Orthodox Christmas tradition you won’t find Joseph in the center of the picture with Mary beside the manger as he usually is in our standard creche scenes (https://www.orthodoxroad.com/nativity-icon-explained/). In the Orthodox icon of the Nativity Joseph is down in the corner. He’s been pushed to margins of the story. It’s not about him. You see, Mary and her baby are not taking a trip on the train of his life, he’s taking a trip on the train of theirs.
Years ago, I read a little article in “Guideposts” magazine about a child who tried out for a role in her grade school play. After the auditions were over, and the little girl’s parents asked about the part she was going to play, she excitedly announced, “I’ve been chosen to stand and cheer!” Well, Joseph isn’t standing and cheering in this icon. He’s sitting and sulking.
The Orthodox Christmas Icon is full of details, and they all mean something. For instance, down in the corner where Joseph is sitting and sulking, there’s someone else standing there talking to him. It’s the devil disguised as a shepherd. Just as the devil showed up in the story of the Garden of Eden as a snake telling Adam and Eve that they couldn’t trust what God had told them about not eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, the devil shows up in the Christmas story to taunt and tempt Joseph not to trust what God had told him about how Mary had gotten pregnant, and who this newborn baby in the manger really was.
It’s said that every temptation, at its heart, involves this decision not to take God at His word, not to believe what He has told us. Is this the struggle that we see on Joseph’s face in the painting? Our Orthodox brothers and sister would say “yes.” They believe that what Joseph was wrestling with down in the corner of the icon of Jesus’ was whether or not what he had been told by the angel about this baby being the Son of God was really true. They see him as a representative of all of us who have to come to terms with Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And I’m sure there’s something to this. But I’m also inclined to think that there’s something else going on here too. Something less doctrinal and more personal. Something much closer to the pathos in that song, “It wasn’t his Child.”
Michael Horton, a theologian whose works I read with great appreciation these days, likes to say that the thing we’ve all got to decide is whether God is going to be a supporting actor in the movie of our lives, or if we are going to be supporting actors in the movie of God’s life? Putting Joseph down in the corner of the icon was a clear signal that this movie was not going to be about him. He’s certainly got a role to play. There’s clearly something that God needs him to do. But he’s not going to be the star of this show.
There’s a poignant petition in a Pastoral Prayer that was written by James Christensen,a respected Disciples Pastor from the last generation, for those who “labor faithfully in obscurity.” This is what God called Joseph to in our Scripture lesson this morning, just as this is what God calls nearly all of us to in our own lives. Laboring faithfully in obscurity. There’s going to be no spotlight, and precious little applause. As Robert Phillips,a Methodist minister in Illinois put it in sermon to fellow retired clergy –
The curtain of obscurity drapes the stage upon which the drama of our faithfulness to Christ is played. The drama continues, the play unfolds, the players deliver their lines with passion, but the curtain never rises so that a larger audience can see what is happening. Is it enough that the Author of the drama sees? Is it enough that the cast chosen by the Author to share the drama witness the actions and words? Is it enough at the end of the play to hear the solitary voice say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?”
Daniel Taylor, a professor of English at a Christian college up in Minnesota, says that “the fear of insignificance” is hardwired into all of us as human beings.
“Will it matter, once I am gone, that I was ever here?” This question, asked in one form or another by every reflective person, is an outgrowth of the basic human need to feel that we count, that our lives have purpose, that we are not just a temporary configuration of atoms. We may not need statues erected to our memories, but we want to feel we can say at the end of our lives, “My life was worth living. Things are at least slightly better in the world because I was here.”
And Professor Taylor says that the only way we can do this with any certainty – the only way to ensure that our lives will have mattered – is to “entangle our daily lives with eternal values… to center [our lives] on those things that last forever, that will reverberate through eternity.”
What’s the look on Joseph’s face in Giovanni Battista Gualli’s painting “St.Joseph and the Infant Christ” that moved me so powerfully the first time I saw it back in the mid 1970’s? Is it the look of a man who has entangled his life with eternal values? I think the answer is”yes,” and because it is “yes,” I think it’s the look of a man who knows the “peace of his place.”
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife… (1:24)
That’s how the story of Joseph’s annunciation in Matthew chapter 1 morning ends. Joseph decided to center his life on the things that last forever, on the things that will reverberate down through eternity, and I believe that we can make that same choice, and know that same peace.
John Wesley, the Founder of Methodism, wrote a prayer that he encouraged his people to pray at the beginning of every New Year. Biblically, it sounds to me like something that Joseph could have very easily prayed. This how you make your way to “the peace of our place” —
Lord, I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, Praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. Amen.