Back in more pious, naively idealistic days I chose Joseph as my vow name when professing perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit. Vow names are somewhat like the name change given to nuns. But in their case, women were often told what their new name would be. That explains how my first grade teacher went from Mary Ann to Sister Juana.
As an ideal, the new name expresses an intention, at least the hope , that we more fully live out our Baptismal call to become “a new creation in Christ.” (Let’s leave the “bride of Christ” imagery out of this — it always did seem a little weird to me!) My choice of Joseph was a pious act of devotion, not a public announcement or ontological shift! Only my parents would likely be confused when hearing me declare, “I, Richard Joseph…” Having named me Richard Clarence I alerted them ahead of time to what was coming.
I allowed my mother to indulge her pleasant presumption that my choice was in honor of her dad, Joseph Wieseler. It wasn’t. Rather, my choice was inspired by Joseph, husband of Mary. Taking my lead from his “annunciation” in Matthew’s Gospel, I had found consolation in what I thought the angel was saying to him — “Joseph, do not be afraid to espouse all that is incomplete, unknown, unfinished by taking Mary as your wife. It will be precisely in this embrace of her that Christ will be born.”
My naive assumption that virginity was primarily associated with “incompleteness” or being “unknown”, “unfinished” was to be turned on its head! Kathleen Norris has written a marvelous reflection entitled Virgin Martyrs in her masterful book, The Cloister Walk. Norris observes that first and second century women like Agatha, Perpetua, Felicity, Cecilia, Lucy… those we know as virgin martyrs were anything but incomplete, unfinished or unknown. Quite the opposite!
The brilliance of these women was precisely in their recognition that in their “virginity” they possessed an inherent completeness, wholeness and dignity as a human person. And all this was theirs separate from any need or dependence upon a man to confer their dignity!
These women recognized that in themselves they held the capacity to manifest the fullness of Christ! Perhaps this is the most radical and theologically necessary defense for Christians tenaciously holding on to the perpetual virginity of Mary! On this truth virgin women have staked their lives. In this we recognize the true identity of the virgin martyrs.
Something else about Joseph has been turned on its head since I first professed my association with him — unlike Mary’s one Annunciation, Joseph needs three! Yes, the angel appears to Joseph three times. It is the second that carries the most significance for me now — the one where the angel tells him others are trying to kill the child and they are to flee into exile. They are to become [illegal?] aliens, refugees in an unfriendly land.
Now, having been bruised and bumped around a bit by life, I claim knowledge and hold affinity with Joseph differently. Life may have appeared incomplete, unfinished and unknown decades ago. But it has not evolved at all as I had expected or even could have imagined. Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, certainly those of us in the seventh decade of our lives?
As life unfolds, we certainly know unmerited joy, unimagined happiness and the sheer gratuity of life! We also experience our portion of being Egyptian exiles, too often aliens in an unfriendly world. We learn that life is not fair, bearing far too much heartache for too many others if not for ourselves. By now, some of us have feared for our lives and the lives of those we love. No, life is rarely what we had imagined it would be — for better or for worse!
Today, March 19, is the Feast of St. Joseph. Today I claim his name anew in the hope I may somehow take on more of his identity, character and courage. Older, wiser and — I pray — more humble, I look again and again to the one who cherished Mary and mentored Christ for us!