Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chosen Families

Dedicated to Gideon Addington, known to my Twitter community as @gideony, who took his own life a year ago today on December 12, 2009. We miss you and love you and wonder how it is that you're gone. And to all of my chosen family on Twitter, my love to you. Gideon would have loved to see how we have grown together.

Sermon, Sunday December 12, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Psalm 146 and Matthew 1:18-25

We are coming close to Christmas Day. Can you feel it yet? The air is pregnant with the coming of a child, a tiny infant who will enflesh divinity, fulfilling prophecies and toppling kingdoms. Stars will fall out of alignment and angels will sing to shepherds. Bells will ring and the glorious song of olde will creep upon the midnight clear. But a little longer—we’re not quite there yet. The trees are everywhere with their ornaments and stars. My email inbox is stuff full, alternatively with advertisments for more stuff I can buy for my loved ones and inspirational yuletide chain letters. It’s the most wonderful time of the year—or at least the busiest. So much to do. So much to do. So much to do.

In a sleepy village in Palestine, there was a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph. They were engaged to be married, and before they lived together, Mary became pregnant. And Joseph was sure it was not his child. We do not know much more about Joseph and Mary except for that: a man and a woman engaged to be married, and the woman got pregnant. Tradition makes Joseph to be a carpenter, although he could have been any kind of craftsman. Some say Mary was a child bride—12 years old, too young to marry right away and so still living with her parents. They say that Joseph was an old man, a widower, with children from a previous marriage. Some say that he died at the age of 114. But the truth is that we have no record anywhere of Joseph’s age or Mary’s, nor do we know when Joseph died—he simply disappears from the scriptures after Jesus was 10. We can infer a lot, we can guess a lot, we can read a lot into the text. But what we know for sure is very simple: a man named Joseph was engaged to a woman named Mary. And she became pregnant with a child who was not his.

I attended a worship service recently where this same passage was preached. And when the preacher came to this point—that Joseph was confronted with the fact that his fiancé was pregnant with someone else’s child—everybody laughed a little along with the preacher. Truly a dilemma, you see! What was Joseph to do? And the laughter in the room was connected to a sense of scandal, a delicious sense of moral certitude which made each of us nod knowingly. A young woman pregnant, and the fiancé is not the father? We know how that conversation went! The shame! The scandal! The indecency! And even though we as readers are given the knowledge in advance that this child is the responsibility of that tricky and irrascible Holy Spirit, Joseph didn’t know that. We watch him, fascinated, mulling over the options. What would we do? Would we keep the wife? Put her out on the street? Sue to see if she is not a virgin so we might keep the dowry? Chase after the other lover? Perhaps these days hire a private investigator or check her facebook. At the very least we imagine the conversation: the angst of infidelity, her protestations of innocence, his confusion and disillusionment, her stubborn refusal to be shamed. All this and more fluttered through our imaginations as we listened to the preacher laugh softly at this confrontation, and our own laughter reflected moments of discomfort, disillusionment, betrayal. Most of us have been on both sides of that story at some point—the one betrayed or the one who betrays. Oh yes, we know how that conversation went.

Except that we don’t. Not really. We know that there was a man named Joseph engaged to a woman named Mary, and that she became pregnant and it wasn’t his child. He had to think about what to do next. He was a good guy, the text says, and didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, so he thought about setting her aside quietly. I have to admit that I am not sure how this would have helped Mary. While Joseph was sure the baby was not his, Mary was equally sure that the child was hers. In a few months she would bear a child, with or without Joseph by her side. The idea that quietly setting Mary aside was the kindest option Joseph could imagine implies something about what harsher punishments would be available to her. A seminary professor once preached on this topic, and he laughed softly too. In that time and in that place, “what would a dismissed woman be with a baby of unknown father?”[1] And while we’re asking that question, we might ask what happens to women who have babies alone today, in this place?

I have to admit that I am not overly sympathetic to Joseph’s plight if we understand that plight to be whether or not he would keep this woman promised to him (and her child). I confess that my feminist sensibilities make me ill-equipped to look at this story with any objectivity—my heart goes back always to Mary and her plight. In a few months she would give birth to a child. However that had come about, she sought protection from the man who had offered to provide for her in marriage. The world over and in all times, such arrangements have been made. We see in this scripture the scandal and the shame of an out-of-wedlock birth. I wonder that we are unable to see the ordinariness of this occasion! In 2007 nearly 40% of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.[2] This number fluctuates and has indeed risen sharply over the last twenty years, and interestingly the increase is mothers older than 20—teenage pregnancies have dropped. We imagine a time and place when all women were married and had babies by their husbands, but truthfully childbirth and marriage practices have varied widely over the last two thousand years. I am not really sure what Joseph’s frame of mind might have been as he pondered his options (and possibly his reputation), but I know that Mary was in need of shelter and security for herself and her child, and that Joseph had the resources to provide for them.

And so the angel came to Joseph in a dream, and the rest we say is history. Or at least we say it is Our Story. Joseph after all provided shelter to Mary and her child, and took the child as his own (although the text does not ever say they marry). So begins this queer little family with at least a mother and a father and a little child. And later we hear that there are brothers and sisters—siblings of Jesus. Again, the make up of this family brings into question the purity of the mother, and theologians of all stripes across all times have argued over the virginity of Mary. Does she remain a virgin her whole life long? Some think so. Are the siblings of Jesus his “actual” siblings, born of the same mother and father as Jesus? Some people claim this as true. This would make Jesus the oldest brother, the first of several children born to Mary and Joseph. Still others, stubbornly clinging to the purity of Mother Mary, insist that the siblings of Jesus were children from Joseph’s first marriage (which is also not in the gospel text). Others still say “brother” is a euphemism for “close family member” and that the brothers were actually cousins. Other historians claim that Joseph never existed and that the gospel birth narratives are dubious at best. To show you how extreme the debate over Jesus’ family gets, allow me to read to you one scholar’s response to another on the question of whether Jesus’ brothers were his full siblings or otherwise situated. John P. Meier wrote these words in 1997—two thousand years after Joseph meditated upon whether to keep his woman or not:
IN HIS ARTICLE "The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response to John P. Meier," Professor Richard Bauckham took issue with my position that the brothers and sisters of Jesus probably were his siblings. I had presented my approach in different formats in volume 1 of my trilogy A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus and in my presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association of America in 1991.1 While thanking Professor Bauckham for deeming my presentations worthy of his critique, I must admit that I am not convinced by his arguments for the Epiphanian view, namely, that Jesus' brothers and sisters were actually the offspring of Joseph by a previous marriage.

Our debate is not an easy one to follow, since each of us has expressed himself first in a book and then in an article. To compound the problem, each of us shifts his position, or at least his perspective, as he moves from book to article.2 Hence, it would be best to begin my reply by outlining for the reader the points of agreement and disagreement.

1. St. Jerome's solution, namely, that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were really his cousins, is considered by both Bauckham and myself to be highly improbable.

2. Both authors admit that one cannot entirely exclude the possibility of either the Epiphanian solution or the Helvidian solution (that the brothers and sisters were the offspring of Joseph and Mary after Jesus' birth).3 In his book, Bauckham held that the historical evidence is not decisively in favor of either solution. In both of my works, I held that the evidence favors the Helvidian view, although I stressed in my article that absolute proof of the Helvidian view is impossible and that the Epiphanian view could be upheld with intellectual integrity (Meier, "Brothers and Sisters," 27). This seemed to leave a very narrow range of disagreement.[3]
I hope that clears it all up for you.

And so what we have in front of us in the text is a man and a woman, engaged to be married. The woman is pregnant with someone else’s child. There are siblings whose parentage we are unsure of. We do not know if the man and woman ever formally married. We’re not sure when Joseph died or if Mary remarried or even when Mary died, for that matter. We don’t know the names of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Or when they were born or when they died, how many there were or if they were any more upstanding and righteous than Mary or Joseph or Jesus himself. What we have in front of us is a family, partly related by blood and partly chosen intentionally. You have a mess, which is what most of us have when we gather with who we call family. What’s your family tree look like? Because Lord knows I have gaps in my pedigree.

I find myself more in sympathy with Joseph when I understand him in this way: as a man who was considering his options about family. Would he make a life with this woman and her child, providing them with what resources and shelter he could? When I think of Joseph as a man who would be afraid to raise another man’s child as his own, I do not find much respect in my heart. But when I think about Joseph as a man who considered carefully how he might be a part of this family, then I see a man worthy to raise the Christ child; a man who gathers to him those he loves and calls them family; a man who sees a child in need and provides; a man who can ignore the soft laughter and snickers of his neighbors to ensure the safety of his partner. Is all this affected by the possibility of infidelity? Of course. Is Joseph a martyr and a hero for taking on a woman of questionable reputation? Perhaps. But what if he is simply a person who chose to provide for those he loved?

Jesus himself was a man who knew about chosen family. When he began his adult ministry, Jesus gathered about him twelve disciples who gave up everything to travel with him for three years. He shared table with all sorts of individuals; he healed where he could; his chosen family was huge. And in the end, when he was dying upon the cross, Jesus looked out at his mother and the disciple John and said, “’Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:25-27) As he drew near to his death, Jesus ensured that his beloved, chosen family was not alone—he grafted them on to each other so that the woman now had a son and the son a mother. Christ does not, after all, intend for us to be alone in this world—not even if we are female and pregnant and cut off from our families of origin. We belong in fellowship with one another, even if we have broken sexual taboos and broken vows. We are called to love one another and provide where we can. And when our own families cannot do this—when we are cut off through brokenness and betrayal, sorrow and disappointment, Joseph shows us a way to choose family, to gather together, to scoop up our women who are pregnant and alone, to parent with them, and to love the babies.

Who do you know who is alone this Christmas? Who needs provision and shelter? Who do you know who walks with their head low, cringing at the soft laughter and snickers that follow them in the wake of their own personal tragedies? How narrowly have you escaped such a fate yourself? Reach out and gather to you a chosen family. Let us not leave anyone out in the cold this Christmas. And if you are lucky enough to be the chosen family of a woman pregnant with a child that is not yours, then unto you a child will be born, and may you be blessed indeed, my dear Joseph.

[1] Luis Rivera-Pagán, sermon delivered April 24, 2007, Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[3] John P. Meier, “On Retrojecting Later Questions from Later Texts: A Reply to Richard Baukham,” The Catholic Bible Quarterly 59 (2007), 511-512. (accessed December 12, 2010).


  1. You got me, Katie. Tears are streaming down my face, and I guess I'm going to have to pull myself together and go off to church. Great sermon.

  2. I really like your sermon Katie. Lots of good things to think about in it and I do enjoy your feminist lens. Also want to wish you and your family a very good final two weeks of advent and a joyous Christmas day.

  3. So touching. What a wonderful heart you have :)