*Preached at Grace North Church December 19, 2004 by John R. Mabry*
Joseph had almost made it back to the woodshop when one of the children spotted him. Even though he knew Malachi would be waiting for him, he couldn't resist engaging them. He could hear them call his name from over the garden wall, and when he rounded the corner, there was not a single one of them in sight. He slung his bag of tools onto the other shoulder, and spoke, as if to himself, but loud enough that all of the children could hear, wherever they were hiding. "I thought I heard someone calling me! How strange, there's no one here!" He ignored the smallest of the children, who were, despite their best efforts, really in plain sight. He actually caught the eye of Tamar, and winked at her-she pulled a sack down over eyes and tried to hold still. "Perhaps it was the Lord calling me, hm? The Lord has a much higher voice than I expected! Perhaps the Lord is a child, hm?"
He wanted to find Zeke's twins, since they had played a joke on him the other day, swapping out his iron nails with clay replicas they had rolled out themselves. It was a very funny joke, he had to admit, since he hadn't spotted the fake nails until he was already on the job site. Unfortunately, the customer had not been so amused when Joseph told him he would have to delay starting on the job to retrieve some more "supplies" from the shop. He stalked about the garden, wondering where he himself would have hidden at that age. Then he saw where a large spray of flowers created a curtain, and edged in that direction, but not too obviously. He crisscrossed the garden, always talking loudly to himself.
"And why should the Lord not talk to me, hm? If the Lord is hiding, I will find him!" At that, he tore aside the curtain of foliage to reveal a teenage couple in passionate embrace. The girl shrieked at their exposure, and ran away. The boy turned red and stammered incoherently. Joseph himself stammered a bit, "Oh, llook, I'm so sorry. I was looking forsomeone else." The boy took advantage of his befuddlement and took off himself. Joseph felt a moment of heaviness come over him. The last thing he wanted to do was to discourage young lovers; he was too much in love himself. He felt ashamed for intruding on the couple, and sat down by the canopy of flowers.
And that was when he heard the giggles coming from above. He cocked his head to listen, but restrained himself from actually looking at the roof of the nearby house. "It's too bad I could not find those children," he said, too loudly, so that they all could hear. "I had a new toy to give themI guess I'll just sell it in the shop instead."
At this he heard an excited rustle coming from the roof of the house, then a yelp. Before he could get up a boy of about eight fell in a heap near his feet. "OW!" the boy cried, and then groaned under his breath. It was Michael, one of Zeke's twins. "Good thing we Jews build our houses so low to the ground, hm?" Joseph reached down and helped the child to his feet. He dusted him off and turned him around to make sure there was no permanent damage. "Now, where is your brother? I swear, there's nothing worse than twins."
Thomas called to him from the roof, "You said you had toys!" "Come down from there and ask me politely!" Joseph spoke to the roof. He mussed Michael's hair and took a bear he had carved at lunch out of his sack. "I only have the one, so share this with your brother, okay?" At that all the smaller children "revealed" themselves, uncovering their eyes so that Joseph could see them. "I can't carve toys all day!" he told them as they gathered around him. "But here," he passed a Roman coin to the eldest of the girls, "Make sure everyone gets a treat, okay?" And then they were all off in a herd towards the baker's shop.
He sat back down and enjoyed the sun on his face for a moment, but his reverie passed quickly. "Joseph!" It was Malachi's voice, and he did not sound happy. "I swear, man, if you weren't such a miracle worker, I would have fired you ages ago. I was expecting you before the third hour was up."
"You know how Benjamin and his wife can be," Joseph explained, "They have to talk through every last detail, even if there's nothing to fix." Malachi stared at him for a good long moment. "Well, that's true." Joseph was surprised to see that his expression was more worried than angry.
Malachi sat beside him near the canopy of flowers. "You're intended's mother is waiting for you in the shop," he said quietly. "If I were you, I'd just kill myself now, because if the Pharoah had looked half as threatening when Moses came to see him as your mother-in-law looks now, we'd still be slaves in Egypt."
Joseph found that hard to believe. Anna was such a gentle woman, and she loved him. As long as he had been courting Miriam, both Anna and Joachim had treated him as their own son, with kindness, respect, and even a little awe. Malachi stood and stomped about nervously, "Look, I'm going to go home for a bit of a nap, okay? Give you two some privacy. I'll be back at the ninth hour, we'll pour some hinges, yes?" Joseph nodded, and waved a goodbye. Feeling older than he actually was, he swung the toolbag onto his shoulder once again and headed for the workshop.
*** *** ***
"Anna?" He called, rounding the corner into the shop. He set his bag down on the waist-high planing bench, and blinked, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. "There you are." Anna's voice was thick with both anger and tears. She rose and strode towards him with sudden fury. "We trusted you!" she shoved him in the chest. He stumbled backwards, but she kept coming, shoving him again and again. "We LOVED you! You bastard! Why didn't you just kill her with your own hand and get it over with!" Her final shove came with a force he could not anticipate and he stumbled over a bench. He picked himself up quickly and caught at her hands.
Anna was a slight, frail woman, nearly half his own size, but she wrestled herself from his grip effortlessly, and swung around, catching his face with a slap that he was sure could be heard for blocks. "You gentile dog! You just couldn't wait until next year, could you? You had to have your satisfaction-who cares if it cost my Miriam her life? And us our honor! I pray God will damn you to the flames of Gehenna!" She slapped at him again and again, but now he simply let her hit him. He was dazed and his cheeks stung more than they hurt.
But his lack of resistance only made her angrier. Her tears nearly blinding her, she cast her hand about for some weapon, and found the hilt of a mallet on the bench behind his head. She swung it up above her and brought it down hard, catching Joseph in the temple. He slumped to the floor and she beat at his chest with her fists until she got sick and wretched on the floor. Then she staggered to the doorway and collapsed herself.
*** *** ***
When Joseph came to, he instantly wished again for oblivion. His head pounded and his chest felt like it had been run over by a herd of goats. He tried to sit up and winced. "Nonolay back down, Jo. I don't feel like cleaning up any more vomit." Malachi was pressing a cold, wet cloth to his forehead. He smelled myrrh, and knew his boss had been applying ointments to his wounds. "What happened?" he asked finally.
"I was hoping you could tell me," Malachi said. "When I got here, Anna was passed out cold by the door, there, and you looked like you got the raw end of a fight with a couple of she-lions."
"Only one she-lion, but she was fierce enough. Ow"
"What did she say to you? What provokedthis?"
"I haven't got a clue. She said, 'Why didn't you just kill her and get it over with?' Kill who?"
"Could she be talking about Miriam?"
"She must be. She said something about 'couldn't I have waited another year'" Joseph sat upright, oblivious to the pain. "Malachi! What if"
The thought occurred to Malachi at the same time. "The only thing I could think of that would make Anna this mad, was if Miriam were to be foundwell, with child."
"Shh..don't blaspheme. Let's think this through. If we're rightand Miriam ispregnant. Joseph, did you twoyou know?"
"We kissed! We did kiss, but I swear upon my parents' memoryI never violated hertrust." He clutched at Malachi's shirtfront, "Promise me you'll say nothing, Malachi! They'll kill her!"
Malachi, who was normally gruff, impatient, even condescending to him, pried his fingers from his own shirt and held them in his hands. "Joseph, we don't even know the whole story. I will keep every confidence you need me to. I promise." Joseph relaxed, and his head swam with grief.
The penalty for conceiving a child out of wedlock was death by stoning. Officially, both parties could be stoned, but since it was harder to implicate the man, and most of them denied it, more often than not it was only the woman who was killed. It happened a couple of times a year in Nazareth, more than in other cities, as Nazareth was not esteemed as the most moral of places. Joseph avoided stonings, as he felt such events were cruel and ought to be carried out in private. But he had seen a few, and in his mind's eye he saw his beloved Miriam in the center of a circle of blood-crazed righteous folk, bent on exacting the justice demanded by the Law of Moses. No mere man could intervene.
"She must have been raped, Mal! She would never consent, she loves me!" He was weeping now, and his friend hovered over him with the cool cloth, shushing him and touching his hair with uncharacteristic tenderness. After a while, Joseph's sobbing subsided. Finally, he said, "What should I do, Mal? I have to save her."
"We must think this through very carefully." For a while they kept silence. Eventually, though, Malachi said, "There's no way you can marry her, now."
Joseph knew it was true. She had shamed him. Even though they were not officially wed yet, they were betrothed, and he was no less a cuckold. Even if the deed had been done without her consent, Miriam was damaged, used, and not a fit bride for any man with an ounce of self-respect.
"I'll break off the engagement" he said, not believing the words coming from his own mouth. "We'll tell peoplewe'll tell them that Miriam was so grief stricken at the breakup that she went to live with distant relatives."
Malachi finally sat. "That could work. I have a kinsman in Tyre that might take her in for a price. He's kind, and won't ask too many questions."
Joseph felt a spark of hope, "She could tell people in Tyre that her husband died soon after the child was conceived."
Malachi nodded, "People will talk, of course, but then people always talk. I think it's for the best, Joseph. I'm so sorry this has happened to you, my friend. Talk to Miriam in the morning; now, sleep."
*** *** ***
Joseph slept, but not well. He woke several times in the night, his head filled with worry, and he obsessed over half-baked schemes that could never work in the light of day. He knew it was wise to rest, however, and he forced himself to remain still, even if sleep evaded him.
Near dawn, his pains lifted and hovered in the air above him, and he found himself at the large workbench near the oven with Malachi, pouring hinges. The molds were scattered across the table, and Joseph was coating them with fat, while Malachi worked the bellows to heat the iron. There was a third man at the bench, too, but Joseph could not see his face. He was also busy, methodically smashing each of the molds as soon as Joseph had greased them. There seemed to be an endless supply of molds, however, and none of the three men were interrupted in their industry for what seemed like some time.
After a while, however, the man smashing the molds spoke, and when he did, it sounded like the rushing of water. "I will smash every hinge you make."
"Then shall I make more?" Joseph asked him, without bothering to look at the face he knew he could not see.
"Better to rest."
But Joseph just kept going. Rubbing the cloth in fat, swiping the inside of the molds. But then the pain hovering above floated down and settled upon his head like a crown of fire. His grief overcame him suddenly and he lowered his head to the table and wept.
"She has not been with you" the faceless man said matter-of-factly, but Joseph took it to be a question.
"I swear she has not!"
"Nor has she been with any man."
"Then how" In answer, the stranger smashed another hinge.
"I will unmake every thought you have, and every plan you make shall end in dust." Then the man's face which could not be seen shone suddenly with the brightness of the sun. Malachi seemed oblivious, but Josheph shielded his eyes with both hands. The voice of many waters continued. "The child is mine. The girl will not be killed, nor will you divorce her. Today you sought after children, and played at finding God. But I tell you, truly, if you find children, you find God."
The glowing countenance receded, and then the man whose face he could not see fastened one side of the hinge to the tabernacle where the Torah was kept in their local synagogue. The other side he fashioned to a door, and yet, inexplicably, the door was the village, he could see all the people of the village in that door. Everyone in Nazareth, the miller, the blacksmith, the rabbi, the prostitutes; they were all there. "It must be loose," the stranger said, "or it will not work." He swung the door open and shut, open and shut.
The man swung the door faster and faster, until it made a noise like the beating of wings, and above the din, the faceless stranger spoke again. "God saves, my son. And that is what you should call him."
Joseph woke covered in sweat, the roaring of wings in his ears.
*** *** ***
It was barely the third hour when Joseph stood outside Joachim and Anna's house. He stood there for a long time, not only uncertain what to say, but, he admitted to himself, afraid to face Anna's wrath again. "God give me the proper words," he whispered and strode to the door with a confidence he did not feel. He knocked and waited for what seemed an eternity.
Finally, the door opened a crack, and Joachim's lined, aged face peeked out. His brow furrowed when he saw who it was. "Father Joachim," Joseph pleaded, "I do not know who has visited such evil upon us allbut I love Miriam, and I would never dishoner her or you in such a way." And then he lost it and cried for every dream of happiness with her he had ever had. The door swung open, and Joachim reached out and pulled him to his breast. "I believe you," he said, and they wept together.
After several minutes, their tears began to slow, and they simply held one another in mutual grief. "I never thought you could do this, Jo," Joachim said, drying his eyes. "But Anna needs someone to blame. Please forgive her." Then he seemed to notice Joseph's face for the first time. "And I see you have much to forgive." He smiled a little weakly, until he caught a glimmer of a smile in Joseph as well. "You think you look bad, Joseph? You should see what your face did to my wife's fists!"
Joseph almost laughed at that. But then he remembered himself. "Where is Miriam?"
Joachim looked around warily. "Anna is at market; be quick. Miriam is in the sleeping room. Behave yourself." Joseph winced; Joachim had meant it as a jest, but was sorry as soon as he'd said it.
*** *** ***
When he drew back the curtain, she was there, a thirteen-year-old girl, rocking back and forth, trying to comfort herself. She was wrapped in every blanket in the room, although it was not a particularly chilly morning. "Is that you, Jo?" She did not turn around.
"It's me." He walked to the far side of the room to face her, and sat on a low bench.
Then she saw his face, and knew what her mother had done. "Oh, Jo, I'm sorryI'm so sorry!" She cried, and there were more tears for both of them. She choked a bit as she spoke, "I told them, Amma and Abba, I told them I have neverI didn'tI never would betray youor them. But they don't believe me"
Neither did he, Joseph thought, or did he? He felt a confusing mixture of compassion and anger at her. They were so close, so close to all their dreams coming true. What possible temptation? And he knew there was none. He knew Miriam like his own soul, had known her since she was a baby, since he was a boy, and none of this made any sense at all. He would have staked his life on her, and without a moment of fear. "No other man but you, Joseph, has ever touched my lips." Her eyes locked on his own and held on for dear life. "And no man has defiled me. I swear to you. I swear to-"
"Shhhdon't blaspheme. We need all the help we can get right now." He reached out and took her hand. "If no man has touched you, how did this happen, hm?"
"I don't know!" Her face was contorted with despair and confusion. Could someone have taken her in her sleep? Drugged her? Could she be protecting someone, perhaps even Joachim? He banished the thought.
"Just before I missed my moon, I had a dream," she said. "I don't know why I'm telling you this; it isn't going to help us any. But it was very strange and Amma and Abba won't listen to anything I say right now."
"Tell me," he whispered.
"There was a man with no face, and his voice sounded like a river. And he hammered a nail into my palm, and another in my foot. It held me down on a large piece of wood, larger than I have ever seen. Then, he did the same with my other hand and foot, but this he nailed to a huge box. Then I realized that I was not a girl at all, but a hinge on the tabernacle at the synagogue"
Joseph's jaw dropped and he felt suddenly faint.
Miriam continued, remembering and distant. "But before he closed the door, he asked me if it was okay. I told him, 'This is what I am meant to do.' And he swung the door shut and I was just there, inside the tabernacle with all the birds."
He wanted to say, "there aren't any birds in the tabernacle," but he remembered that this was a dream. And he also knew that the faceless man she saw was the same who had visited him last night.
She didn't expect a response from him. She did not expect him to believe her. "What will become of me, Joseph? Will you hand me over to be killed, or will you be merciful and send me away?" She looked up at him, pleading for her life.
"What else can I do, my love?" He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. "I will do neither. Instead, I will marry youif you'll have me. I will marry you this very day, if you are willing. And then we'll move to a village where they don't know how to count. How's that?"
She searched the lines and bruises of his face for some hint of mockery, of cruelty, but she found only love. Her sobs came forth parched, dry, as if she could not position her throat or mouth to do it properly, and she clung to him ferociously.
"The child's name is Y'Shua," Joseph told her.
She leaned back to see his face again. "What do you mean?" She meant to say, "How can you think of such a thing right now?" But it was too strange a thing for him to say. She looked at him wonderingly.
"His name is 'God will save,' is what he said. 'Y'shua,' Joshua, Jesus."
"Who said this?"
"The man with no face, in my dream, last night."
Joseph smiled. "I'm going to talk to your father. I'm going
to suggest we leave soon after lunchtime. It's all going to be
okay. But I want you to rest, to relax." He kissed her on
the head. "A hinge must be loose or it won't work, you know."
She clung to him, breathed her relief into his shirt, and wondered
at the strange life taking form within her.