Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Joseph was an old man

So goes an old and rarely sung carol.

In the ten days before Christmas, a group of very elderly, frail, forgetful people, sitting in a conservatory, are taking time every morning to sing about a baby. Arriving to take our monthly ‘service’ in a local care home, I was greeted by the activities co-ordinator (church input is an ‘activity’), proudly waving copies of ‘Away in a manger’ and announcing that it had become part of the day’s routine. So, we sang it again, before we did anything else. Fred had already been singing along to ‘Hark the herald’ on a CD playing gently beside him: he was a boy chorister, now too blind to see the words on a sheet, and today more focussed on his military service in North Africa than past carol services. Iris reminded me, as she always does, that she is in the Baptist church every Sunday: it has been so much part of her life that she keeps it there, even if doesn’t really happen. Liz joined in with prayers and carols with great enthusiasm, just one beat behind all the time, because somehow her deafness is creating a delay in receiving sound. Maggie was cross: she used to delight in our visits but now resents them, says pointedly that she doesn’t believe any of it, and loudly that we should shut up. She’s placated by Mary, the saintly Reader Emeritus, who has lived in the care home for five years since her stroke and maintains an extraordinary calm and patience.

Every month a service, prayers and the old familiar hymns; every month some, at least, of the residents tell us how grateful they are for our presence, every month staff are relieved to see them engaged and involved: and every month I leave with a sense of guilt and inadequacy. It’s a good care home, small, privately run, many of the staff are long-serving. But it feels as though there is little honour here for those whose lives will be lived out within its walls; for their contemporaries, still in their own homes and dependent on visiting carers, rushing from appointment to appointment, there is even less.

In a few days time we will celebrate the birth of that baby, marvelling at the God among us as child, utterly dependent on those around him for all that sustains life. Month by month, among the home’s residents, I see faculties, both physical and mental, diminished; dependence and need increased. These are no longer productive members of society, and all too often the debate about their care speaks of a burden. Even in church circles, I have heard care for the elderly disparaged, because they will not add to our numbers or contribute to the parish share. But if we are to tell a story of God coming among us, helpless, vulnerable, needing to be fed, cleaned, nursed, sheltered, loved, then surely these are among those of our neighbours who most vividly bear his image.

Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford

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Posted by Jane Freeman on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 8:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

I haven't been able to attend our monthly service at the local nursing home as many times this year as I would have liked. Invariably I find this service to be the one where I am most 'at home'. It's a place of great beauty.

Posted by: Pam on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 11:07am GMT

Brilliant. Thank you.

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 11:14am GMT

Beautiful reflection. Thank you. But the idea of Joseph was an old man? This denies the full humanity of the holy family into which Jesus was born, and was surely invented out of the need to ensure that Joseph could not be imagined as any attractive rival to God for Mary's devotion - or physical threat to her Virginity.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 4:42pm GMT

Beautiful, Jane.

Posted by: andy gr on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 7:35pm GMT

Thank you, Jane, for this lovely contribution to our understanding of how the frail and elderly can contribute to our understanding of the patience and love of God for ALL God's children - if only we are willing to share the experience of being alongside them in their declining days.

My pre-Christmas weeks have been spent visiting the elderly and dying of our parish in Aotearoa New Zealand (with the Vicar on Sabbatical, someone has to do it). I am always surprised by their ready acceptance of what can be done to reassure them of God's continuing care of them - both by the staff of their care homes and by the parish visitor in bringing the Sacraments.

I have been taught much in the way of patience, myself, by the humble acceptance of our darling oldies, whose faithfulness we need to honour by our attendance on them in their latter days. I anointed and said goodbye to one of them only yesterday and I'm glad to have done so. He died this morning. May Nick rest in peace and rise in glory, with the Christ he loved and believed

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 11:30pm GMT

The carol 'Joseph was an old man' was an expression of the need of the Church to explain how and why Jesus had brothers and sisters when ... surely he was the only son? Joseph as an old man had therefore had children from a previous marriage.

A fine piece of casuistry that prevails in some Church thinking to this day, but as David Runcorn says runs the risk of denying Jesus' full humanity.

Posted by: Nicholas Henderson on Wednesday, 21 December 2016 at 11:53pm GMT

Thank you for this very poignant prophetic reflection. It helped me focus more deeply on the daily readings of the past three days from Luke's nativity stories beginning with Monday's reading from Luke 1:5-25, about Zechariah and Elizabeth, "both were well on in years." (REB).

I was reminded as well of many years of Christmas liturgies: the chaotic energetic crowded children's liturgy and pageant laid alongside bringing the sacrament to shut-ins, many of them frail and alone and lonely at home or in homes for special care.

The scripture that leaped to mind as I finished reading this was from the the epilogue of St. John, "Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." (NIV)

A prophetic statement that is applicable to each of us if we live long enough, and as such a call to deepen our empathy and solidarity, both virtues grounded in incarnation.

Thanks so much, and a blessed nativity of our Lord.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Thursday, 22 December 2016 at 2:12am GMT

The claim that 'Joseph was an old man' really arises from the problem that Joseph disappears from the Biblical account after the stories of Jesus' childhood. Where was he at the Crucifixion? Early Christians tended to assume - reasonably enough - that he was dead. They were also very likely aware of the ancient custom that an older husband would take a significantly younger wife, and quite possibly a succession of younger wives given maternal mortality in antiquity.

Debates about Jesus' siblings and the perpetual virginity of the BVM have of course continued throughout Christian history, but it is too cynical simply to claim that the 'Joseph was an old man' tradition is a means of evading the problem. It might equally be suggested that the evident discomfort some modern Christians have with this image reflects the unexamined cultural preconceptions of modern Western societies where age disparities in sexual relationships are viewed with varying degrees of discomfort and moral alarm.

Posted by: rjb on Thursday, 22 December 2016 at 9:00am GMT

The nearly continuous view that 'brothers' refers to cousins did not require a particularly aged Joseph and is unlikely the reason for this depiction. Those who never claimed perpetual virginity also viewed the relatives as cousins.

Posted by: cseitz on Thursday, 22 December 2016 at 12:22pm GMT

Man, what's with all this textual critical back and forth bah humbug? Canon Freeman's article is a gift. And the Cherry Tree Carol is lovely; I especially like the version by the St. Louis Jesuits. Merry Christmas to all!

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Thursday, 22 December 2016 at 4:37pm GMT

Greek has separate words for "brother" (adelphos) and "cousin" (anepsios). While the conflation of the two concepts for Jesus has a long history, the distinction in terms has always made this interpretation somewhat problematic.

Posted by: dr.primrose on Thursday, 22 December 2016 at 10:14pm GMT

Surely, the story of Mary's Conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit does NOT deny both the humanity and deity of Christ. He became 'fully human' of the full humanity of his mother, Mary. This should not take too great a leap of faith for, as Gabriel said: "Nothing is impossible for God".
True, or false?

A Joyful Christmas, everyone. Christus natus hodie!

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Saturday, 24 December 2016 at 4:54am GMT

The difficulty, Ron, is with the word "fully" in "fully human". To be fully human you need a set of genes from a mother and a father (well, you certainly did 2000 years ago). Equally the infancy narratives are compatible with a normal conception -- being "overshadowed by the power of the most high"etc does not have to mean that no human father as involved, but that the child so conceived was "special" from the start. Granted this is not the view of the Church.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Saturday, 24 December 2016 at 10:02am GMT

It is the Cherry Tree Carol that Canon Freeman references in the opening sentence I believe.
In the spirit of 12 days and all that, not too late one hopes, here is one version.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 30 December 2016 at 2:51pm GMT
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