Thinking Anglicans

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


We invite you to make a contribution to the Church Urban Fund, which helps local groups work among the homeless and destitute, and tries, through local projects, to help them turn their lives around. You can support their work via this secure page www.cuf.org.uk/donate/advent-appeal/24/credit-card. Thank you.

14
Leave a Reply

avatar
3000
14 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
Rod GillisSimon KershawFather Ron Smithdr.primrosecseitz Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Pam
Guest
Pam

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.

Tim Chesterton
Guest

Brilliant. Thank you.

David Runcorn
Guest

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.

andy gr
Guest
andy gr

Beautiful, Jane.

Father Ron Smith
Guest

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… Read more »

Nicholas Henderson
Guest
Nicholas Henderson

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.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

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… Read more »

rjb
Guest
rjb

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… Read more »

cseitz
Guest
cseitz

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.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

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!

dr.primrose
Guest
dr.primrose

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.

Father Ron Smith
Guest

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!

Simon Kershaw
Admin

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.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5DSEeqnwjE