FLICKERS OF MERCY: In The Sonoran Desert of Arizona
I present the story of St. Joseph as an entry story into this book of reflections, Flickers of Mercy. What challenges us is the person of St. Joseph. Who was he and who is he for us? He says nothing and nobody hears him say anything. Instead, he is told what to do and he listens and does what he is told to do. He plays one ofthe loudest roles in the history of our salvation but he is simply an enigma. He is called husband of Mary by both the writers of the gospels and an angelic being, but the child that comes from the union of Joseph and Mary is without the biological contribution of Joseph as the husband. And the question becomes an extended quest for a seemingly elusive personality. How does one get around to knowing the silent and enigmatic Joseph? Our starting point is the narrative in Scripture about Joseph by St. Matthew. The angel in a dream revealed to Joseph that the child Mary was carrying was the Son of God, “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt. 1:20).
There is no record of Joseph’s emotional reaction anywhere in the gospels. But there is the record of him doing what the angel told him to do. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt. 1:24). And the sacred writer notes the fact that, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (Mt. 1:25). There are two issues here to be clarified about the Jewish marriage culture in Joseph’s time to help bring to human reason the type of relationship that existed between Joseph and Mary. The Jewish marriage culture involved two steps, namely, betrothal and marriage properl. Betrothal was the formal exchange of consent before witnesses. It took place when the bride was 12 or 13 years old and the suggested age for the bridegroom was 18. After the betrothal, the bride legally belonged to the bridegroom, but she remained with her parents until the public marriage commitment and the joyful celebration that followed. During this period, the marriage could only be broken by a legal divorce.
From the evidence of the gospel, the betrothal of Mary to Joseph had taken place: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about: When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together…” (Mt. 1:18). Joseph was yet to take Mary, his legal bride, to his family home. It was at this point that the divine intervention erupted. The second issue is about the options that were open to Joseph in the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. By strict Jewish law, Joseph could have allowed the law to take its course by going ahead with the divorce process of presenting a written evidence of official divorce from Mary signed by two witnesses. With this, Mary would become a kind of “persona non grata,” a shameless object fit only for ridicule, and she would have been left to pay the penalty of breaking the bond of marriage. In practical terms, she would be game for stoning to death by the people of the village.
Joseph thought about the whole issue but decided to act differently. He was no dummy. He knew the marriage laws of his people well but decided to become the prosecutor, the defense, the judge and the only jury in his case. He would apply the law “mercifully” by divorcing Mary quietly. The adverb “mercifully” is used with a semantic intent. It gives us a clue to the meaning and the personality of Joseph. The word mercy in Latin is ‘Misericordia.’ It is a compound word that bridges ‘miseria‘, meaning ‘misery’ and ‘cor’, meaning ‘heart’.
Misericordia literally means ‘heart overwhelmed by misery.’ In this narrative, we can imagine with what Mary was burdened. Humanly speaking, both psychologically and socially, Mary was a mental and physical wreck and ruin, only good for public sport and scorn. She had divine support, but how would she break the news? How could she honestly look at Joseph to tell her story? Would she dare to face Joseph face to face, eye to eye? What words would describe the apparent betrayal? In every respect, misery drowned her out. With Joseph, nothing was simple either. But there seemed to have been a catalyst in process. Joseph put himself in the being and place of Mary. In himself, he felt and relived the ‘misery’ of Mary. There is no doubt that Joseph, as a human being, was shocked to have realized that Mary was pregnant and he knew he was not responsible for it. Should we describe Joseph’s attitude as pity, sympathy, anger, confusion, or sincere empathy? More than these very core human feelings, Joseph loved Mary. His heart bled and reflected the misery that, like waves, were pounding Mary’s heart. With star-light courage, he chose his “never-yet—travelled” path of Misericordia. In him, misery found a compassionate heart.
Can we at this point answer the lead question of who Joseph was? It would seem that loseph was a man gifted like all of us with a plethora of virtues. But he cultivated their seeds – gentleness, patience, humility, kind-heartedness, courage and magnanimity in his depths. He did this in preparation for his task as foster father of the divine child who was placed in his trust. From him and under his tutelage, Jesus would grow, learn and experience raw mercy from birth. His hidden years were years walking and working in the light of a household of mercy.
From the carpenter’s workshop to the temple and the synagogue, Jesus was served and immersed in an enabling environment of mercy. He must have had Joseph in eternal remembrance when, later in the paradigmatic Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). And out on the roads of Palestine on his evangelizing mission, in his symbolic and metaphoric stories, mercy would become the staple healing Haggadah‘ for human spirits for ages unending. Like Joseph, Jesus choose to cultivate a spiritual path, as was the case in going into the desert to search for wisdom and inner strength (Lk. 4:1-13) and also going up the Mount of Transfiguration to pray (Luke 9:28-36).
With Joseph in the carpenter’s workplace, Jesus learned the meaning of “Never say never until never transforms into Eureka (my personal motto), ” meaning that perseverance is key in life. That experience would inspire him to create the “Parable of the Fig Tree”(Lk.13:1-9). From the unconventional love story of his parents, Mary and Joseph, he came to understand the meaning of prodigal loving, which gave him insight to tell the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Lk. 151-3, 11-32). From Mary or Joseph, Jesus must have learned about the big-heartedness of Joseph, choosing the path of mercy rather than judgment in the difficult circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. That story of Joseph’s magnanimity stirred up in Jesus’ fertile imagination the “Parable of the woman caught in adultery” (Jn. 8:1—11). In human living and relationships, appearances lead to false judgements more often than not. In life, things may not always fit into human standards of “black and white, right and
wrong.” So Jesus posed the challenge, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone” (Jn. 8:7).
If you are wondering about what I am up to, it is nothing other than imagining the origins of the seeds of Jesus’ stories,
parables and metaphors on mercy. On the human level I simply credit Joseph and Mary for giving their son good formation in their Jewish worldview that enhanced his ministry
of Mercy. From them he learned the true meaning of mercy — love that is not self-regarding but goes beyond justice and the self. What are parents and guardians for, if not to be merciful guides and mentors? For Jesus, Joseph was a great example of mercy. And we are all beneficiaries. To his other titles we now can add “Joseph, Patron Saint of Mercy!” Here we can
understand why St. Matthew prefaced his gospel with a careful narrative seen from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph was for him a model of mercy. He planned to tell Joseph’s story of mercy first in anticipation of his own tale of mercy later in his gospel.
He was one of those that the Pharisees identified as “tax collectors and sinners,” people hated by all. But the Lord Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, saw him through the eyes of mercy and offered him eternal salvation (Mt. 9:9-13).
For Matthew, who sees God and his relationship with us from St. Joseph’s world view, mercy is a cardinal virtue for human happiness yet to be fully understood and cultivated. Now we
can understand why Pope Francis, like Matthew, saw his apostolic ministry through the eyes of St. Joseph, for mercy is
the music of the soul and of the universe. The words on his Coat of Arms, “Miserando Atque Eligendo” is the Latin for “To be shown mercy and chosen”. Pope Francis has embraced Joseph’s ”Mfsericordia” in order to identify his call to the papal ministry with the call of Matthew to tell the story of God’s mercy, for life would be a lot less complicated with a little bit of mercy from everyone for everyone. And all this because Joseph knew God, believed God, trusted God and played his part.
From the above reflection on the texts of the Gospel we can reasonably answer the question: “Who was Joseph?” He was not only a merciful man but he was also a model of Mercy!
What does Joseph mean for us as we read and reflect on the texts and thoughts contained in Flickers of Mercy? A lot to ponder that can help us refigure, configure and become better beings of mercy. I wonder about the imagination of Joseph at that defining moment of salvation history. He cultivated his imaginative garden of mercy in space and time and left us the seeds of mercy to sow for our difficult times.
We might do well to imagine more and open new paths for human kind to be gentler and kinder to each other. I reflect on the look, the touch, the embrace and the other ways of human relating between Joseph and Mary that greatly impacted Jesus. In Jesus, and through Jesus, there are perspectives of mercy
yet for us, to use to help us build a better world. In such a world, mercy givers will know the true meaning of being there for others and mercy receivers will ever be thankful to God, the source of mercy. I contemplate the listening of Joseph to Mary at the saddest moment of human bonding, and I believe our decisions will be life-giving when we listen to each other with sympathy, empathy and above all with prodigal love.
The reflections in the pages of Flickers of Mercy symbolize — flickers, moments, and possibilities of how to be human in order to replenish the deficit of Mercy in our century. Mercy is God who is I Am. As partakers of God’s being, mercy is our very being. It does take effort to fan it into contagious flames. I need to be infected by the sparks of other missionaries’
contagion and together we can turn the world of our day upside down by giving into the heart of misery as did Joseph
and Mary and Jesus. Let us work as if all the world depends on us for mercy and pray because mercy is God’s gift.
Pope Francis inaugurated and set a limit to the Jubilee Year of Mercy (December 8, 2015 — November 20, 2016). But he didn’t mean that mercy is human work for one year only. He was rather calling us to consciously revisit a cardinal virtue and to make it a habit in our lives. I, therefore, believe that the Jubilee Year is a beginning; and it is a call to all of us to join the Pope to work to make mercy the culture for all generations. In this sense Flickers of Mercy looks at the bigger picture of mercy ahead; and it humbly exhorts all of us to become co-workers of mercy with the Pastor of Mercy, Pope Francis. The Noble Prize Poet Laureate, Rudyard Kipling once said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten”? I have embraced the insight of Kipling by crafting
lived human experiences into the narratives of Flickers of Mai; to prolong in time and eternity our divine-human conversation.
As you read these narratives of Flickers of Mercy, be sure to recollect your moments of mercy too, to benefit others in the unending circle of: Mercy-telling and Mercy-retelling, Mercy-listening and Mercy-remembering, Mercy-reading and Mercy becoming. That is how God did it from the beginning. He created us in Mercy. He told us stories of the merciful people he created. You are one of them. I have adopted the Socratic method of raising questions in some chapters to challenge us
to embrace radical mercy; in others I have concluded with prayers trusting in God’s faithfulness and the guidance of the
Prayer to St. Joseph:
Saint Joseph, illustrious descendant of David,
Husband of the Mother of God,
Foster father of the Son of God,
In a dream you received from the Almighty
The task of taking Mary as your wife
And Jesus as your son, conceived from the Holy Spirit,
And of caring for them in the difficult beginnings of the New Covenant.
lntercede for us so that your example may remind us to care for the presence of Jesus and Mary in our lives, in the trials of today’s world.
Chapter One: A Historic Moment to Mercy
Chapter Two: The Anthem of Mercy
Chapter Three: The Terms of Mercy
Chapter Four: The Appearances of Mercy
Chapter Five: The Missionaries of Mercy
Chapter Six: The Infinity of Mercy
Chapter Seven: The Time of Mercy
Chapter Eight: The Economy of Mercy
Chapter Nine: The Home of Mercy
Chapter Ten: The Transfiguration of Mercy
MSGR Michael Ekpenyong
Michael Otto Ekpenyong is a Catholic Priest who holds a Masters Degree in Philosophy and Doctorate Degree in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University Pittsburg, U.S.A. At the Catholic Secretariate of Nigeria, he served at the Secretary General for a couple of years. In September 2012, he was appointed Papal Chamberline (Chaplain to the Holy Father) by his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. He is the author of Story telling Imagination and God-Talk (2002) and Beware of gods (2005), The John and the Paul in John Paul II (2010) and much more which can be accessed here.
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