Susan's Blog

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Jesus, Mary, Joseph

There came a sudden darkness, and Joseph, alarmed, stood and looked up at the sky. Mary rose to her elbows. But then as quickly as the dark had come, there came a blinding light from inside the stable. Joseph closed his eyes against it, and when he opened them again, the baby had been born.

— Elizabeth Berg, The Handmaid and the Carpenter

What a fantastic book I have found! I am halfway through Elizabeth Berg’s new novel, The Handmaid and the Carpenter. I have read many of Berg’s books, and most of the time I love her stuff; however, sometimes she makes me choke from her very writerly style. She makes her prose a bit too beautiful and clever and self-consciously crafted.

But The Handmaid and the Carpenteris different from and far superior to even her usual fare. It is extremely well done. (As a writer I am so jealous! What a great idea, taking the story of Jesus for a novel and writing it in your own style!) Berg’s is the story of Mary and Joseph, and then of Jesus, written as a novel. Not having read most of the New Testament, I cannot say whether Berg’s account approaches accuracy, but it feels true. As a Jew I have always found this story very compelling, both from what I have gleaned in comparative religion classes in Sunday school and from Christian friends, because it is that which separates Jews from Christians. The concept of the Virgin Birth is an astounding one; as a non-believer I have always wondered how others could believe in it. (Needless to say, I mean all of this respectfully, of course.)

And I wonder how people of that time felt about Mary, et al.? How did Joseph feel, and why did people believe Mary’s story? In days of being stoned for adultery, why was Mary not stoned? What occurred to make people believe her? I understand about faith, because I believe in God and that takes faith. So it must be for the Catholics.

This book, however, sets forth the story in a way that I can understand how others believe this. Mary and Joseph and their families are drawn as real people. Mary is beautiful and headstrong and very confident; Joseph is traditional, handsome, skilled as a carpenter, and head over heels in love with Mary. He struggles terribly with the news that she is pregnant and wants to divorce her, even though he still loves her (but she has broken his heart with what appears to be her infidelity) but has a vision one night that gives him a kind of permission and strength to continue to love her, despite her alleged flaws.

I can imagine an angel or a vision coming to someone and telling them things. We all have our conscience, our intuition, our ESP moments, our Jiminy Crickets! Call it what you will. I have had no such experience with angels, but I believe that I have experienced feelings that have to do with God. I don’t believe this particular story for myself but now I can imagine how someone raised Catholic, steeped in these stories, would feel its truth on some level, if not literally. That is how I explain the Bible to my kids: it is not, for the most part, literally true, but there are truths and lessons in it that are important. We don’t, for example, believe in Adam and Eve and the Garden literally, as being the first people, because we believe in evolution. But I believe that somewhere along the line in evolving, people became more and more aware of their differences sexually, and articulated those differences, so that eventually they felt that even though something was gained in their knowledge, something was also lost, a kind of innocence. In evolving, humans’ feelings and thoughts and perceptions deepened and became more sophisticated, and at some point people looked back on how how others used to be, their more primitive selves.

We all feel the loss of innocence even as we learn things we want to know about, and we grieve that change even when we celebrate it. I think this is the meaning of the Adam and Eve story. My deeper understanding of who my children are brings with it a joy and a sadness, that I am never to be an innocent, naive, easygoing mom filled with dumb love for her babies. My love is extremely informed and analytical; my knowledge of my children, rife with developmental terminology and observations. I do have unconscious moments of happiness with them, too, but that is not so much in my nature as the other kind.

So with the Mary story, perhaps the meaning intended is that in birth we all get the chance to start fresh, and that in becoming parents we are taking a leap of faith that it will be okay, that we will be okay, and we, too are renewed in that act.

2 comments

I’m tearing. How beautifully put.

— added by Estee Klar-Wolfond on Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 6:04 pm

Born and raised catholic, the bible was all about teaching children stories.

and that in becoming parents we are taking a leap of faith that it will be okay, that we will be okay, and we, too are renewed in that act.

THAT, my dear, is absolutely lovely!

— added by r.b. on Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 9:15 am

%d bloggers like this: