Joseph. Around this time of year, Joseph is often the focus of conversation in churches as he married Mary, though she had become pregnant without his participation. There are many amazing things to ponder in that story, but that wasn’t what struck me recently on reading scripture about Joseph.
What struck me was in Luke 2. Caesar Augustus, leader of the Roman Empire, had called for a census, and everyone in the Roman Empire went to their own town to be counted. Luke 2:4 says, “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” He took Mary, who was pregnant, with him. It has to be a pretty serious business because the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 111 kilometers. And there were no taxis in those days. I’m not thinking the trip would have been very appealing to Mary for sure.
Anyway, I started thinking about Joseph belonging to the house of David and that driving him to go to Bethlehem. What would it be like if we had a worldwide census today and were required to go to our own town – where we belonged? I would have to go to the U.S., Ireland, England, Scotland, and Germany….just for starters. Modern technology and transportation has afforded many of the world’s citizens to relocate much more easily that in the time of Mary and Joseph. And so, the world now looks very different than it did then. Joseph’s heritage was directly linked or related to his belonging.
I’ve been intrigued for many years by the belonging that Jewish people experience in their communities. In fact, there seems to be a very strong sense of identity woven into the fabric of their lives in community. My father was very intrigued as well, and he somehow managed to convince the local Jewish Community Centre in West Bloomfield, Michigan, that there could possibly be a little bit of Jewish blood in his line, so that he and his family could join the centre and benefit from its many affordable activities. He also attended (and had us attend) talks given by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founding rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and I remember dad approach Rabbi Wine and asking if it would be possible for him to become a humanistic Jew. The Rabbi delivered the unfortunate news to my dad that there was no way for dad to become a Jew.
I took a class in seminary where we watched a film about how the Jewish people celebrate Sabbath – the rituals, the words spoken, the symbolism, etc. And I found myself experiencing a little bit of envy. These practices and celebrations go back thousands of years and are common to a whole people group. What practices do I have that go back thousands of years in my family? I had this sense of wistfully desiring to belong in such a way that I would make a trek to my homeland to be counted, even at a very inconvenient time, just as Joseph did.
I think of how much displacement there is in the world. Refugees far away from their homeland, children stolen from their homes, people moving far from home for work, children of divorce being shared by multiple homes, peoples’ lands being taken from them, people being lured and then trafficked in faraway lands, along with those like me who simply choose to move to another country. Broken homes, broken families, broken cultures, broken hearts. I wonder if many of us, especially here in the more developed Western world, have struggled with losing a sense of belonging? Along with transience being easily achieved, are our lifestyles – which have become much more in tune with social media as opposed to in-person social interaction, and which are far more geared towards independence rather than interdependence – contributing to disconnection from others instead of connection with others?
Jesus offers us belonging. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians at a time when there was a deep divide between Jews and Gentiles, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross…” (Eph 2:15-16). And then in Eph 2:19, “ Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…” There are many edicts of how we are to treat each other in the family of God, the most common being “Love one another,” as written in John and 1 John.
It seems to me that we are in another time of polarizations. We see this in the form of the election in the U.S., the standoff in North Dakota, shootings of policemen and policewomen, and various other indications of deep divides. Perhaps today we can say that Jesus’ purpose is to create in himself one new humanity out of the many, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile all of them to God through the cross… Oneness, peace, reconciliation.
The theme of Advent’s second week is Peace. Let there be peace on earth… Jesus set the stage, offering the way of peace and reconciliation. Those of us who would have a hard time knowing where to go or who’s house we belong to in a time of census, can know that we belong in God’s house and in his family. Will we believe?