Television commercials are one of the most powerful mediums for communicating cultural values in our society. That doesn’t mean they are the best or most constructive; just very powerful. They have to be in order to be effective. It’s often thought that the point of advertising is to convince us of a need that the product provides a solution for. But while that can be an important element, the most effective advertising doesn’t just tell us what we need; it tells us who we are, or who we want to be. It makes us want to align ourselves with the product because “people like me” use it.
I remember about five years ago, there was a commercial for a product called Gogurt, which is yogurt packaged in squeeze tubes that look like really long ketchup packets, so you can eat yogurt “on the go” without having to pack a spoon. In the commercial, a father is cleaning up from breakfast and getting his son’s lunch together for school. As he does so, he finds sticky notes pasted all over the kitchen: on the table, on the cabinets, in the drawers, all saying, “Remember the Gogurt!” “Don’t forget the Gogurt!” “Seriously, Go-gurt!” There’s even a string of sticky notes inside the fridge with arrows pointing to where the Gogurt is stored.
The father responds to them all with head-shakes and tolerant smiles as he proceeds with his work. As his son sprints through the room, apparently on his way out the door, the boy asks an urgent one-word question: “Gogurt?” The father hands off the lunchbox to the boy like a football and just says “Yep!” brightly as the kid runs out; but as the kid disappears, the father gestures in good-natured exasperation behind him, because of course he remembered the Gogurt that his son loves so much.
The first time I saw the commercial, I remember thinking I wanted to go out and buy some Gogurt right then, because finally, finally, I was seeing a minimally-competent father on TV. One of the most common stock characters in commercials and entertainment is the “bumbling dad”: a father who undoubtedly loves his kids but is incapable of even the most basic parental duties because he’s incompetent, lazy, selfish, or all three; Homer Simpson might be considered the patron saint of bumbling dads.
And I understand the reasons for the trope: it inverts the old stock character of the wise and perfect father from 1950s shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, and inversion of expectations is crucial to comedy; men continue to hold an unfair share of power in our society, so making fun of them is “punching up” instead of “punching down,” as comedians say; there are persistent stereotypes about fathers that some men and women continue to promote and believe and even emulate; and so on. But it was still a moment of real power for me to finally see a father on TV whose identity as active and competent parent is neither remarkable nor praiseworthy to himself, but simply a given.
This week, we got a sacred version of that story with an image of the Nativity that went viral online and is a departure from the standard scene. Nativity scenes are generally pretty standard in terms of their layout. At the center, of course, is the manger, the animal feeding trough that doubles as a crib for Jesus because, the Gospel of Luke tells us, there is no room at the inn where Mary and Joseph were staying. So Jesus is in the crib, and usually Mary is kneeling or sitting right next to it, and Joseph is often standing behind her, more or less in the background. Even the visitors often get more prominent roles: the shepherds and the Magi kneel in the foreground, worshiping Jesus and offering their gifts; an angel and the star hover above; but Joseph remains in the background, almost a part of the scenery with the animals who are milling around.
The viral image this week, though, showed something different. There are no animals, no shepherds, no Magi or kings; no angel or star is visible. It is simply Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. The implication is that it is late at night or very early in the morning, after all the visitors have gone and the excitement has ebbed away. Joseph is in the foreground, holding Jesus and smiling down at him. Jesus’ little arms are outstretched, and Joseph gently grasps one of Jesus’ arms in playful tenderness. And Mary is lying asleep on the bed behind them; the image itself, in fact, is entitled “Let Mum Sleep.”
The image spread widely online this past week or so, and even found its way to Pope Francis, who was delighted by it. “How many of you have to share the night between husband and wife for the baby boy or girl who cries, cries, and cries,” he said; “and we can also invite the Holy Family to our home, where there are joys and concerns, where every day we wake up, eat, and sleep close to our loved ones. The manger,” he concluded, “is a domestic Gospel.”
In other words, the Christmas story is not some stylized production that conveys great but abstract truths; the very ordinariness of this domestic scene helps convey that Jesus really is Emanuel, “God with us,” as human as human can be. And the same is true of both Mary and Joseph in it. Part of the power of the scene, then, is Joseph neither a bumbling dad nor a passive observer of Jesus; he is an engaged and competent father who loves his son. But I think it is at least as powerful that the scene is itself a sort of inversion of the common depiction of Joseph as part of the background to Jesus’ birth. Or perhaps a better way of saying that is that it redefines what it means to be in the background.
A few years ago, the film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary was called Twenty Feet from Stardom, and it tells stories of the black women background singers who are mostly unknown but whose voices gave many of the biggest hits of rock and soul music in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s their power and depth. There is an exploration of how dynamics of race and gender made it much harder for them to be stars in their own right, of course. But part of what was most interesting was how some of them simply had no interest in being a “star” in the first place.
Lisa Fischer is one of the most sought-after background singers alive today; she was the primary background singer for the Rolling Stones on tour for over twenty years, and also worked regularly for Sting, Tina Turner, and Luther Vandross. As a solo artist early in her career, she found both critical and commercial success with her first album. But in the process, she discovered that she loved being a singer but had no interest in being a star; the kind of self-promotion and loss of privacy that it requires was simply not a sacrifice she was willing to make. And she makes no apologies for that. “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more. I love supporting other artists. Some people will do anything to be famous. I just wanted to sing.”
Joseph, too, redefines what it means to be in the background. Our story today is the only real story about Joseph in the entire Bible, and even in his own story he remains essentially in the background. This is his moment to solo in the big show that tells the story of Advent and Christmas, and he doesn’t take it; he stays silent. But that silence itself is a profound and powerful act of faith. Because he had very good reason to take center stage and sing a song of anger and betrayal and pain: his fiancée is pregnant with someone else’s child. At least half the reason that country or blues music exist as genres is as an outlet for those kinds of songs.
But even before the angel comes to him in his dream to explain what’s going on, he is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [and] planned to dismiss her quietly.” Even when Joseph believes he’s been done profoundly wrong by Mary, he responds by staying in the background; that’s what dismissing her quietly would mean. And when the angel appears in his dream to explain that he shouldn’t be afraid to take Mary as his wife because her child is not the result of human betrayal but of God’s love and grace for the world, Joseph responds with faith (he’s the first person who accepts Jesus for who he is purely on faith, after all); faith in both God and Mary by accepting his role as permanently in the background, raising this child as his own child by love if not biology.
And parenting is both a profound act of love and an acceptance of your role as a background singer in supporting the growth of a child. Because while parenting can be immensely fulfilling, it isn’t about you. Much of parenting, like background singing, is doing lots of seemingly small or unglamorous things that are often not recognized in the moment, but are acts of beauty and power that would be sorely missed if they were not there.
In his poem, Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden recognizes that in hindsight. “Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,” he says; “then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress….speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know,” he concludes, “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
The fundamental dynamic of parenting is love in the sense of concrete actions that embody care and support, regardless of whether those actions are recognized and celebrated or not; while it is certainly good to be appreciated, you’re not doing it for applause or recognition; you’re doing it because you feel the desire and responsibility to nurture something beautiful and even holy.
The theme of the fourth Sunday of Advent is love, which is fitting, given this story about Joseph. Because we often reduce love, whether it’s parental love, romantic love, or any other dimension of it, down to what it makes us feel. But that’s not what is most important about love, especially Christian love; what’s most important about Christian love is what it makes us do, what it generates from within us and brings to life in the world.
Or to paraphrase Lisa Fischer in the documentary: love is not focused on being famous, on being recognized; love in Christ just wants to sing, just wants to help nurture and support the beauty and grace and love that God is bringing into the world. And Joseph is full of that kind of love; before the angel visits him in the dream, in his response to the dream, and in the way he lived out his life as Jesus’ father on earth, which was remarkable enough to have helped nurture Jesus into the man he grew up to be, and selfless enough to have generated almost no further stories of him.
But that, in and of itself, is good news. Joseph’s story today reminds us of whom we are called to be by God. When we look at Joseph, despite all the miraculous things and unique experiences that swirl around him, we can still see “people like us.” Because he reminds us that most of our lives of faith are not lived at center stage, and they don’t need to be.
Most of our lives of faith are lived in the background, and the difference we make is not in the size of our crowds or the breadth of our renown but in the impact we make through small acts of love and grace that incarnate Christ in the world every day. Because the only thing, the only thing that changes anything for the better, in the end, is love. And in the birth of Jesus, God’s ultimate gift of love, the world would never be the same again.