Family Plans: a poem for the longest night

I want it known I had a plan.
And this — this was not the plan.
The plan was small and simple and concrete: 
a good life, a righteous life, a quiet life.
Now the plan is seven pounds of impossible weight 
and screaming.
I want it known I had a plan.
I know, I know:
we make plans and the Almighty laughs.
Has the Almighty ever laughed now!
The sages tell us the Lord can laugh.
But will he giggle?
Will he smile?
What does the Son of the Almighty’s smile look like?
Will I need to go veiled the rest of my life, like Moses, 
who looked upon the glory of the master of the universe?
For now, the master of the universe is less glory and more hungry.
I give him to his mother.
He wails at her breast, unsure of what to do.
She guides his face.
The master of the universe eats.

It’s all a blur, the last few hours.
The labor pains coming on.
The grain of the door — the hinges need tending; 
in the morning I’ll offer to fix them, 
a drop paid back in the sea of hospitality.
I’ll never forget the feel of the wood under my pounding palm.
Please. Please. A place to stay. 
Not even a guest room. Not even a bed. 
Just somewhere warm, out of the night and the Roman terror that stalks the city.
Bethlehem is a little town, unimportant to Caesar, 
but who knows what is safe anymore?
Any place. Any place safe.
I do not even know whose floor my love gave birth on.
It might be a cousin. Everyone’s a cousin in this town.
They are kin to me now even if they were a Samaritan.
Family has nothing to do with blood.
Family is who takes you in.

I think of my family.
Quiet Joseph, they called me.
Righteous Joseph, they called me.
What does it mean to be righteous?
I thought it was a simple life, straightforward:
to follow the law, to worship the Almighty, 
to make just enough that I could give to the stranger in need.
I thought righteousness would not take me ten miles from Nazareth.
Now I am a hundred, or more; 
the mile markers faded into the darkness as we made our way.
That rocky path was the most straightforward anything has been for months.
I still feel the taste of the nail in my teeth, 
the heft of the hammer 
when Mary arrived at my home — our future home — and spoke.
A vision.
An angel.
A promise.
Is not the word of the Almighty to be a blessing?
But where is the blessing in a ruined engagement, an unwed mother?
Where is the reward for righteousness, when a righteous heart can be broken?
Here is the strange thing: mine was not.
It should have been. 
All that I knew was lost, in the moment the angel spoke
and Mary said “yes.”
And yet my heart did not break.
The Torah tells us to place these words upon our hearts: “Hear, O Israel,
O you who wrestle the Almighty: put your trust in Adonai alone.”
The sages ask: why put the words upon our hearts, and not in them?
And the sages answer: we cannot put the words inside our own hearts,
but we can put them outside,
and when the heart breaks,
the words fall in.”
In the moment all was lost, my heart did not break.
Something knit it together, like an unbreakable cord.
And though I knew the next right thing — to end the engagement,
to send her back to her father’s house or off to cousin Elizabeth —
I chose a night of sleep first.
It is a miracle I slept at all.
No, that is not the miracle — 
the miracle was the angel knocking at the door to my bound-up heart.
A thousand eyes and wings, a hundred voices chorusing:
…Sure. No problem.

I was named in honor of the one who dreamed:
Joseph son of Israel,
beloved son of a beloved son.
His dreams promised blessing:
dreams of glory over his brothers,
dreams of feast and famine,
dreams that delivered the children of Israel into safety in Egypt.
Safety in Egypt! Ha!
Unlikely we’ll see that day again.
Our ancestor Joseph led us into Egypt,
one ancestor Moses led us out.
The stories of all the righteous before me 
are collapsing together on this night.
Joseph the dreamer, who protected his family.
Moses the deliverer, who saw the Almighty face to face.
And Joshua, who took down the walls of Jericho
and made a place for our people to live.
And now this child, this tiny child,
who we are to name Jesus: “He saves,”
whose nickname is Emmanuel: “The Almighty is with us.”
The Almighty led us out of Egypt with a mighty arm,
but now his hands are pale blue, fingers clenched in fists.
The midwife lays a gentle hand on my shoulder
and tells me this is normal:
his fists will open, the color will flow.
“He’s strong, just like his father,” she says,
and smiles in a way I cannot read.
Does she mean me?
Does she mean …

Sated, the master of the universe falls asleep.
“Mary,” I murmur. 
She raises her head. Beneath her veil, 
her eyes shine with equal joy and exhaustion.
“Let me,” I say. “You need your rest.”
Before she can respond, his eyes flutter open:
a few gold specks amid a darkened light.
When I look down at him,
it is as dizzying as looking up at the stars.
One small arm stretches its way from his swaddle
and swings toward me, erratic,
but I will read intention in it.
“See, he wants his father,” I tell her, 
with only a little false confidence,
and slip a callused hand beneath his soft sweet head.
Her face lights with a warmth that heats the whole house.
He nestles into my chest.

The sages tell us it is the breath of the Almighty
that soared over the deep waters before the world was made.
It is that same breath in each of us, 
passed down from Adam,
creature made of earth and split in two
to make Man and Woman.
This is how it has always been:
man and woman, child and children, generation to generation.
That is all I have known of family.
Yet now: this child,
who breathes the breath of the Almighty
against my dust-dressed robe.
And now: this child,
no flesh of my flesh,
and yet flesh of every flesh.
No child of mine,
yet a child of the whole world.
He belongs to none of us,
and all of us,
and me.
Family has nothing to do with blood.
Family is who takes you in.

Creative poetry is newer to me than sermon-writing. In this piece, I wanted to capture the frantic nature of a first birth (Jesus’, yes, but every child’s) while also integrating good biblical and historical contexts. This is easier for me to do in a sermon (or a podcast), where I can have tangential asides and laugh at myself for the ways I deep dive into minor facts. While I think the poem can stand on its own, I wanted to leave some notes for those who might want to explore some of the interwoven references:

– “we make plans and the Almighty laughs”: an old Yiddish proverb.

– “the sages tell us the Lord can laugh”: Psalm 2:4 and many other places. In Joseph’s time, the psalms and proverbs (and other writings) were not yet officially codified as “scripture” in the same way that the Torah and the Prophets had been. They would have, however, been treated with reverence and known at the very least as crucial commentary.

– “veiled the rest of my life, like Moses”: Exodus 34:29-35.

– “Not even a guest room”: Though tradition speaks of a full inn and an innkeeper, a more accurate translation of “no place for them” in Luke 2:7 would be “no guest-room”, a smaller room off the major space of a first-century house. Many guest rooms were on the second floor of a house, accessible by a ladder, which would make it very impractical for a woman about to give birth.

– “Bethlehem is a little town, unimportant to Caesar”: A foreshadowing of Herod’s attack in Matthew 2:16.

– “It might be a cousin. Everyone’s a cousin in this town”: Bethlehem was a small town, potentially under a thousand in population, and mostly if not all Jewish.

– “They are kin to me now even if they were a Samaritan”: the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was and is complex; Samaritans were and are also descendants of the line of Israel, but they separated from Jewish practice and faith at some point (historical and religious accounts are deeply varied on when), and in Jesus’ time they would have been considered ethnic and religious opponents or at least competitors to Judaism (thus the irony, for example, of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25–37).

– “Quiet Joseph, they called me”: In both the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus’ birth, Joseph has no recorded words.

– “Righteous Joseph, they called me”: Matthew 1:19.

– “Now I am a hundred [miles] or more”: Nazareth is about 93 miles from Bethlehem by today’s roads.

– “the mile markers faded into the darkness”: One of the many aspects of Roman conquest was carefully placed mile markers.

– “Mary said ‘yes’”: a core theological belief I hold about Christmas is that Mary was able and willing to consent to God’s plan.

– “The Torah tells us to place these words upon our hearts”: there is healthy debate in Jewish practice about the proper translation of “al”, sometimes rendered “in” and sometimes “on.” Many English translations have “Keep these words in your heart”, but that is not the only possible translation.

– “‘Hear, O Israel’”: Deuteronomy 6:4.

– “‘O you who wrestle the Almighty’”: a reference to Israel’s name in Genesis 32:28.

– “The sages ask: why put the words upon our hearts, and not in them?”: a Hasidic story.

– “like an unbreakable cord”: Ecclesiastes 4:12.

– “the next right thing — to end the engagement”: Matthew 1:19.

– “I chose a night of sleep first”: Matthew 1:24.

– “A thousand eyes and wings”: the Bible is short on concrete descriptions of angels. Seraphim, who surround the throne of heaven as witnessed by the prophet Isaiah, have three pairs of wings (Isaiah 6:2), and most of our traditional depictions reduce them down to the pair with which they fly. An alternative vision of angels, popularized through internet memes, is the ophanim (Ezekiel 1:15-21), “wheels within wheels” and covered in eyes.

– “BE NOT AFRAID”: a traditional greeting from God’s messengers. Particularly makes sense in light of Ezekiel’s terrifying vision.

– “Joseph son of Israel”: he of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat, in Genesis 37:1-3.

– “Safety in Egypt! Ha! Unlikely we’ll see that day again”: a foreshadowing of the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath in Matthew 2:16.

– “Our ancestor Joseph led us into Egypt”: Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt and his rise through the ranks to serve at the right hand of Pharaoh results in his father Israel and all his brothers and family moving there during the famine in Genesis 37-50.

– “one ancestor Moses led us out”: Technically God did: Exodus 3:8.

– “And Joshua, who took down the walls of Jericho”: the “conquest of Canaan” is a difficult topic in light of two thousand years of Christian domination “in the name of Christ”; we have treated essentially any space we wanted as “promised land” and claimed biblical or godly right to capture it in any way we saw fit. Jericho, meanwhile, shows no historical or archaeological evidence of ever having its walls knocked down. Joseph did not have either of these contexts.

– “who we are to name Jesus: ‘He saves’”: Matthew 1:21.

– “whose nickname is Emmanuel: ‘The Almighty is with us’”: Matthew 1:23.

– “The Almighty led us out of Egypt with a mighty arm”: a common term for God’s delivering act in bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

– “The midwife lays a gentle hand on my shoulder”: A midwife would almost certainly have been present at Jesus’ birth.

– “his fists will open, the color will flow”: a baby’s (very commonly) blue hands was one of the many things to terrify me at my own son’s birth.

– “a few gold specks amid a darkened light”: despite traditional imagery, Jesus almost certainly would have been dark-skinned and brown- or black-eyed.

– “beneath his soft sweet head”: a deliberate reference to Away in a Manger.

– “the breath of the Almighty that soared over the deep waters” & “It is that same breath in each of us, passed down from Adam”: Genesis 1:2 and 2:7; though different words are used (ruach and neshamah), the two are used somewhat interchangeably in the Hebrew Bible for “breath of life.”

– “creature made of earth and split in two to make Man and Woman”: the second creation story (Genesis 2:4a-25) does not culminate with God’s creation of man and woman, but rather starts with the creation of a creature, “ha’adam”, a play on “adamah”, the Hebrew word for ground. Only when God splits the “ha’adam” in two do the words “man” and “woman” enter the story.

A few general language choice notes: here, Joseph refers to the divine as “the Almighty” and “Master of the Universe.” Many practicing Jews, in Jesus’ time and now, would be very cautious in speaking the name of the Lord and even more so in writing it down — hence the use of “the Lord” or “G-d” in many prayers and texts. I particularly used “Almighty” to capture the paradox of the power that created the whole cosmos now distilled into a vulnerable baby. “Master of the Universe,” a Hebrew salutation for God that dates to at least the 11th century, is similarly used.

The first lines written were “Quiet Yosef, they always said. Righteous Yosef, they always said.” In the first draft, I used an Anglicized version of Hebrew names. Yosef made sense; Miriam was recognizable; but as I got further into the stories of the ancestors, of Moshe and Ha’Adam and particularly of Yehoshua (Joshua), the poem was reaching a point of being inaccessible. This is one of the hardest balances in preaching and writing, for me: how do you respect the original context, while recognizing how far we are from it? So, in this form at least, the names are the ones English speakers will recognize: Joseph, Mary, Moses, Joshua, Jesus.

Finally: my own son was just barely more than a dream this time last year. We entered the Christmas season with shots and egg collections and prayers and hopes and weeping. I had no idea just how much my life would be (wonderfully and exhaustingly) turned upside down by his arrival in August 2022. I’ve found myself drawing near to the biblical and historical traditions around Joseph the Father during this time: diligent, protective, compassionate, swept along by the mystery of a child that is not biologically his and yet has always been and will always be his son. And so, when our first son was born, we named him Charles Joseph.