Pray for Obscurity

Sermon for Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Feast of St. Joseph, Guardian of Our Lord

This past Monday, St. Patrick’s Day, the New York Times ran an article on the 1863 draft riots in New York City, riots in which the Irish figured prominently.  Rachel Swarns’ article challenged the long-standing narrative that the Irish and African Americans, squeezed into Manhattan’s eighth ward, were a tinderbox of mistrust and racial tensions.   She reports that in the 1870 census, just seven years after the riots, there were 80 interracial couples in the eighth ward. How could members of two competing, antagonistic minority groups have come together so often to form families?  Swarns posits a theory:

We know that economic competition can divide people.  We saw it in the 19th century when many Irish immigrants, egged on by racist politicians and employers, discriminated against blacks and viewed them as economic rivals.  But shared work can also create intimacy and understanding… and for many of these…. men and… women, it appears to have done just that… They were working together and living together and having families together.

Curious to me is that these marriages have gone almost unnoticed by historians, who focus primarily on the racial tensions of the time.   Maybe these couples’ hiddenness is due to the fact that many of them were illiterate and left no letters or diaries, or that they were too poor to have their family photographed. Maybe society’s stigma against interracial marriage effectively hushed their existences.  Yet right there in the census documents, in the spidery script of a late 19th century hand, are 80 couples with children listed as “mulatto.”

When I think of St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate today, I am reminded of these interracial couples in late 19th century Manhattan.  St. Joseph reminds me of these couples not only because he did an extraordinary, counter-cultural thing in marrying a woman who was pregnant and not by him, but also because – like these couples – we know almost nothing about Joseph.   Mary Joseph 1We have no more information about Joseph than we do about these interracial couples living in 1870 in Manhattan.  The scriptures tell us about Joseph that he was the son either of Jacob or Heli, that he was a “carpenter” (which some scholars tell us may have been more like a stonecutter), that he was a “just man” who wanted to dismiss Mary quietly, and that he had multiple dreams in which God gave him directions for caring for his wife and her infant.  Oh, and that he was still alive when Jesus, age 12, was left behind and later found in the temple during a family trip to Jerusalem.  That’s it; that’s all we know.  After today’s gospel lesson, Joseph completely disappears from the record of scripture.

As I consider the interracial couples living in 1870 in Manhattan and what an extraordinarily daring thing those couples did, and as I consider how these couples’ lives passed with so little fanfare that we know almost nothing about them; and as I consider Joseph and what an extraordinary thing it was for him to care for the Holy Family and how, in spite of such an extraordinary life, we know so little about him, I can’t help but think of our own lives, quickly passing.  When my sisters and I are gone, all memory and nearly all record of our grandparents’ lives will be gone.  And when my grandchildren (if I have grandchildren – I don’t want to pressure my kids;)) are gone, all memory and nearly all record of my life will be gone.  What, then, is the incentive to live an extraordinary life, if – in the span of two or three generations – all will be forgotten?

The incentive lies with Jesus Christ, who himself lived an extraordinary but – at least in his lifetime – obscure life.  Outside of the scriptures, there are virtually no historical references to Jesus.  Jesus founded no school (such as the Cynic or the Stoic philosophers did).  He was not wealthy or powerful.  He never met any famous people; indeed, he never travelled outside of his remote corner of the Roman empire.   Jesus was, as the title of the book by John Maier suggests, a “marginal Jew.”   If we want to better know Jesus, then, it would help for us to be obscure, too, for then we could more easily enter into his experience and imagine what it was like for him.  Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises – a series of prayer exercises intended to help a person better know, love and follow Jesus – encourages his participants to pray for obscurity for that very reason: so that they might better enter into Jesus’ life and get to know him.

Mary Joseph 2I wonder if we, as we consider the extraordinary life that Joseph must have lived, a life lived nonetheless in obscurity, might pray for obscurity.  I wonder if, in praying for obscurity, we might learn not only what it might have been like to be Joseph, but what it might be like to be Jesus.  And coming to know Jesus better, how could we not but love him?  And isn’t that – love: God’s love for us, and our loving God in return – the point of why we’re here this evening?


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