Clash of Values
It may seem strange that in the period of Lent when we contemplate the death of Christ, we have two feast days next week that are more closely associated with the conception of Christ. This is because it is now nine months until the birth of Christ on Christmas Day. On Monday we have the Feast of St Joseph (deferred from Sunday since the liturgy of the Lenten Sundays take precedence) and on Saturday is the Feast of the Annunciation.
In our multi-cultural, multi-generational world, values are bound to clash. What one group holds dear, another trashes. What one holds out in pride, another hides in shame. There is not a consistent measure with the content and origin of honour. What is valued? And who values it?
Imagine someone asked you to give up something you deeply valued, for a higher value. In a small Jewish hamlet, a young girl was asked to give up her reputation for a greater honour – the favour of God. And she agreed.
Let’s consider the place of girls like Mary in the social pecking order of first century Palestine. In a gender segregated male dominated society, young girls like Mary were sheltered from the outside world in order to protect their virginity and insure the honour of the family. The murder of promiscuous or raped young girls by family members was not uncommon; the reason was family honour. It was also inconceivable that young girls could lead the people in such a public function as temple worship.
In addition to family honour, young girls were not educated. Literacy lay with the male, since females were considered too inferior for education. (How could Mary know the Scriptures like Zechariah? Remember that women had no rights in ancient society; they were treated like property.) Girls symbolised by Mary stood at the bottom of proper society.
When the angel greeted Mary, she reacted in an appropriate social manner. Confronted in private, Mary wondered why she was greeted and she also feared from the implications of the greeting. Were her honour and the honour of her family to be compromised? [Luke 1:29] The angel proposed a conception and birth that could endanger her arranged marriage with Joseph and put her life at risk. (According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, a girl who was not a virgin before marriage could be stoned to death. No wonder she defended her honour!) [Luke 1:34]
To overcome Mary’s concern, the angel proclaimed her honour before God. She was highly favoured by the Almighty. [1:28, 30]. And her Son would be highly favoured by God, for God would give Him a title and royal power over His people that would never end. [1:32-33]. Notice God gave her honour with His presence [1:28b] and with a mission [1:31]. (In ancient society, women could not have honour on their own; they could only stand in the honour of their husbands and sons. Hence, there was the important connection between Mary’s honour and that of her Son.) To reassure Mary, the angel also announced the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth, an elderly woman believed to be barren.
Human honour is indeed fleeting. But God’s honour stands forever, even in the face of criticism. Mary accepted, even proclaimed, God’s will in her life. She placed her future in the hands of the Father. Her example should inspire us to stand firm as Christians in today’s ever-changing fads and fancies. Remember, the words of others may sting, but the Spirit of God burns within. The divine fire can withstand the darts others fling toward us.
Reflect on the sacrifice of others so you could receive the faith. Think of your parents, family and friends. How have they withstood criticism and prejudice for your sake? How can you honour them for their “yes?” How can you help pass on the faith, despite the cost?
Mary’s pregnancy also presented Joseph with problems. As a “righteous” Jew he wished to follow the Law, save personal face, and still have compassion on his betrothed. But a dream clarified his mind. Like his name sake in the Old Testament, Joseph received God’s will in his sleep. Many cultures hold dreams as a conduit to the divine will; the key to the dream was proper interpretation, for such would reveal God’s intent.
Ordinary husbands and fathers who simply work hard and do their best for their wives and children but may not be rich and successful in the eyes of the world can take great comfort in knowing that St. Joseph is their patron and role model. The world would probably have judged St. Joseph as poor, obscure, unsuccessful and totally unimportant. Yet he is a shining star, a true hero, a man to be much admired for his great virtue. St. Joseph’s courage, trust and faith are illustrated in his acceptance of the task God entrusted to him to care for Jesus and Mary. In his compassion, love and humility he saves Mary from possible stoning as an adulteress and accepts her as his wife, whilst knowing that her child was not his. He provides the perfect example of what a husband and father should be – the chief protector of their wife and children. Let us love him for showing us the honorable, noble task this is and the qualities required.
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