The Father's Proof

Mother-daughter team, Beth Fitch and Darby Gerlicher, share their reflections on Auden's "Christmas Oratorio" in this two-part series. If you missed the first half, you can find it here; otherwise check out the second portion:


The Father’s Proof
By Darby Gerlicher

Joseph:
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.

Gabriel:
No.

Joseph:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

Gabriel:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

Imagine, with W. H. Auden, what Joseph might have experienced when Mary became pregnant. In the lines that precede this excerpt, he portrays a respectable man who became the subject of whispers. Those who were kind to him acted out of pity, but many ignored him instead. Law enforcement did their best to keep Auden’s twentieth-century Joseph from physical harm, even if they could not protect him from ridicule. Pervading all was a cloud of doubt on Mary’s character.

Auden imagines that Joseph’s response to his circumstances was a request for proof from Gabriel that God is just and loving. He wanted to know if he was obeying God’s will by marrying his betrothed. In Auden’s words, we hear Joseph echoing Psalm 27:12-13 (ESV): “Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

Auden is asking us to imagine how Joseph would have been tempted. The biblical Joseph does not ask Auden’s questions. He is described as a righteous man (Matt. 1:19 NASB), and the full account demonstrates his eager obedience. Do we accept God’s plan as the real Joseph did, or are we tempted to ask Auden’s question?

After all, how many times when we experience or witness pain have we wanted to ask God, “Why?” How often have we feared that we misinterpreted God’s plan? We are not alone in this – philosophers have developed theodicies in search of these answers for centuries. We want answers for the unexplainable realities of life on earth: suffering, injustice, and sickness. In addition to these, Joseph had to accept a miracle that, if not true, was absurd. When God prevented him from divorcing Mary (Matt. 1:19-20), he had no escape from derision. He would have been laughed at for being cheated on, or he would have been laughed at for believing her crazy story.

Auden does not portray Gabriel as a gentle guardian angel, coddling Joseph and protecting him from the ridicule of those around him. The biblical account of Joseph and the angel is very direct. The angel wastes no words when he says to Joseph in a dream, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21 ESV). Both Auden’s depiction and the biblical account may seem to demand much of Joseph with little explanation. Joseph was called to build his entire life around faith in a promise and a miracle.

Despite the difficulty of the call, Joseph trusted in the promise. “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:24-25 ESV). Matthew does not describe a reluctant Joseph, procrastinating and debating with himself as long as possible. No, he acted quickly and decisively — but not because Gabriel gave him proof of the miracle, rooted in reasons he could understand. Instead of a proof, Joseph was given a Son. Matthew 1:21 (ESV) contains the promise and power needed for obedience: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Auden portrays the answer of a Son in the chorus of the angels to the shepherds:
Unto you a Child,
A Son is given.
Praising, proclaiming
The ingression of Love,
Earth’s darkness invents
The blaze of Heaven,
And frigid silence
Meditates a song;
For great joy has filled
The narrow and the sad,
While the emphasis
Of the rough and big,
The abiding crag
And wandering wave,
Is on forgiveness….

God gave Joseph an answer that is more powerful than any explanation could be; He gave him Himself, God Incarnate. This is truly “the ingression of Love.” What Joseph needed, and what we need, is to behold the love of God in the face of Jesus. Auden’s Joseph asked for “one important and elegant proof…that your will is love.” Jesus Himself addresses this in John 6:40 (ESV), “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Through the grace of God we too can look to Jesus, “For God…has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2. Cor. 4:6 ESV). The gospel we preach is Jesus Christ as Lord.

When we want to know why we have to hurt, when we want an answer to the injustice in the world, when our plans seem to disintegrate, we must look to Jesus. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15 ESV). Absurdly, miraculously, Jesus came to suffer with us; He came to suffer for us. He was told “no” by the Father so that all God’s promises might be “yes” in Him (2 Cor. 1:20 ESV). The Father abandoned Jesus on the cross so that we might be united with Him and enjoy Him forever, never left to go through any struggle alone. Christ satisfied the justice of God on the cross, so that we might receive mercy, and He will return to right every wrong. Joseph was given the greatest Proof of all.

Auden helps us respond to the lavish love of God. The angels tell the shepherds,

Sing glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them.
Run to Bethlehem.









Darby Gerlicher graduated from college in 2015 with a degree in piano performance and is now enjoying her second year of marriage to her husband Andrew. Since moving to California after her wedding, she misses the Bethany community but has found joy in studying God’s Word and in building relationships within her new church.

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