R. I. P. Family Life

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matt 1;18-25

I had a shock during the week. No, it wasn’t anything like the post arriving before mid afternoon, but something of a quite different order. I had occasion to be in the local main car dealers, and got talking to the young woman receptionist. And she casually mentioned her husband. Husband? What kind of word is that? What kind of world is she living in? Surely we have progressed beyond all that dreary patriarchal enslavement of womankind? Well, because I am not ashamed to be counter-cultural, indeed I would argue that is the vocation of the Christian to be ready to be just such, I congratulated her, and I hope that those reading this Reflection would have done the same.

We could debate long about what has caused the collapse of family life. I hold the media – the MSM as it is often now called – responsible for much of this misery. Christians would be striking a major blow for decency – I do not even say Christian standards – by refusing to buy in to such rubbish. But it is far too simple just to point the finger elsewhere. The Times newspaper once posed the question “What’s wrong with the world?” and the writer G K Chesterton wrote the following letter ” Dear Sir, I am, Yours faithfully.” We must all be prepared to acknowledge that because none of us is perfect we too are caught up in the pain and brokenness that typify much of personal life in the western world today.

Rembrandt, The Dream of St Joseph, around 1650, Public domain.

It is salutary to measure family life in our own day against the example of the Holy Family. Given the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, the divorce option would have been open to Joseph – though he was not yet married to Mary, he was betrothed, which in Jewish custom was the point of commitment – a year’s betrothal always culminated in marriage unless one of the partners died or there was some kind of scandal, and that was undoubtedly the case here, as described by Matthew, when, before the marriage proper, Mary was found to be pregnant.

We do not know a lot about Joseph, though pious Christians of later ages have done their best to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, but in a sense, this passage says all we need to know, for it tells us that he was a righteous man and that he was a man of faith. What a powerful combination of qualities that is. We can find many people who have an innate sense of justice – indeed it is rumoured to be a particularly British quality – how else would the word “le fairplay” have entered the French language – but without a lively faith in God, to give justice its context and its meaning, justice can at best seem unfeeling and, at worst, spiteful and vengeful. Justice on its own in this situation would require that Mary be punished: faith, bolstered by Joseph’s dream of the angel, in fact dictates a totally different course of action – not merely no divorce, but the acceptance of Mary, pregnant though she was.

And acceptance is one of the keys to any successful relationship. It is fundamental to the Christian life to believe that Jesus accepts us just the way we are – after all, if he’d waited till we were perfect, he wouldn’t have had to die for us, would he? And if he accepts us, then we too must be ready to accept others for the sake of Jesus. If Joseph could accept Mary in spite of the uncertainty, in spite of the shame, in spite of the wagging tongues and pointing fingers, then we too are bound in duty and love to be of a mind to accept one another, spouses, family members, fellow Christians and those beyond, testing though this often is.

Fr. Edward Bryant

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