The Masculinity and Mortification of Auden’s St. Joseph

After two millennia, our veneration of Mary might make it somewhat difficult to imagine how St. Joseph might have seen her when he first heard of her pregnancy. Our familiarity with the joy of Christmas obscures the shock and embarrassment of what was surely seen to be a profound betrayal. Even the recounting of St. Joseph’s plans to divorce Mary quietly tends to be just a part of the story through which we have to get in order to arrive at the wonder of the manger (if I may blend the two Nativity narratives, but never mind). W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio For the Time Being, however, is a revelatory reimagining of St. Joseph’s mortification, his bewilderment, and the meaning of his suffering.

The relevant section of the oratorio, “The Temptation of St. Joseph” begins with the public humiliation of St. Joseph; Mary’s pregnancy is by this point widely known, and St. Joseph walks around town, where the citizens who see him are embarrassed to encounter him, or are kind to him in the way one pities a man who has suffered a great mortification through no fault of his own, and even just ignores him, while the Chorus expresses doubt after doubt regarding Mary’s rather unlikely story. When Gabriel comes to St. Joseph, he asks Gabriel for a reason to believe that the Father is just, but Gabriel simply replies, “No.”

Adam’s Other Sin

St. Joseph does not understand why he must suffer this humiliation, but the narrator explains he must atone for the sins of others in his acceptance of Mary. For Auden, St. Joseph is a prefigurement of Jesus Christ, his foster son, in that he suffers to atone for a sin that begins with Adam and endures throughout the ages. This sin is not Original Sin, the sin that alienates humanity from God and for which Christ atones, but Adam’s blaming Eve for the sin which Adam committed. For Auden, this alienates man and woman from each other and is perpetuated by the men who see love as war, who resent romantic rejection and therefore mock women, or who dishonestly flatter women. As Pope Francis says,

But then the devil introduces suspicion into [man and woman’s] minds, disbelief, distrust, and finally, disobedience to the commandment that protected them. They fall into that delirium of omnipotence that pollutes everything and destroys harmony. We too feel it inside of us, all of us, frequently.

Sin generates distrust and division between man and woman. Their relationship will be undermined by a thousand forms of abuse and subjugation, misleading seduction and humiliating ignorance, even the most dramatic and violent kind. And history bears the scar. Let us think, for example, of those negative excesses of patriarchal cultures. Think of the many forms of male dominance whereby the woman was considered second class. Think of the exploitation and the commercialization of the female body in the current media culture. And let us also think of the recent epidemic of distrust, skepticism, and even hostility that is spreading in our culture — in particular an understandable distrust from women — on the part of a covenant between man and woman that is capable, at the same time, of refining the intimacy of communion and of guarding the dignity of difference.

We might add the epidemic use of pornography, the sexual abuse of female subordinates at work, the propensity to let men off for sexual indiscretions while punishing women, the hook-up culture, and the pitting of desperate pregnant women against their children. Even if men might commit some of these sins against other men also, or if women commit some of these same sins, the fact that men have committed them should inspire men to perform penance to bring about atonement; this is an inspiration that transcends keeping records of who committed what sin when. This is not to implicate all men in some collective guilt, but to say that penance can be done on behalf of others in union with Christ for the common good, as Auden’s St. Joseph is called to do.

St. Joseph as Christ-Figure

St. Joseph has not himself helped perpetuate Adam’s sin against Eve, but he must still atone for it on behalf of the men who have. St. Paul describes how husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church; Christ does this by giving Himself up to atone for the sins of all people, including the members of the Church. Auden’s St. Joseph is to fulfill this mandate to love Mary by dying to himself by giving up his right to a scandal-free marriage and to forgive what he sees as her sin. He is right to expect a wife who is not already pregnant, just as Adam was technically right to say that Eve offered him the fruit, but in neither case does that technical rightness constitute the fullness of sanctity. There is a higher bar. Adam failed to take on responsibility for his disobedience, and so St. Joseph must respond mercifully to what he believes is Mary’s sin in order to begin to atone for the sins of Adam against Eve and men against women, instead of condemning her.

Furthermore, St. Joseph is to die to himself by giving up the abused and degraded power of his masculinity. He cannot atone for the sins of those men who hurt women through his own action, through power, through over-the-top machismo, or just by being a stereotypically “strong” head of the household. Indeed, Pope Francis lists machismo as one of many “deficiencies which need to be healed by the Gospel: machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery.”

Instead, St. Joseph must sacrifice his very masculinity, which “to Nature, is a non-essential luxury,” as it has been reduced to a mere phallic idol and “a symbol of aggression on toilet walls.” Instead of masculinity standing for priestly stewardship of creation, it comes through lust, unchastity, pride, and other sins to stand for crass exploitation and self-glorification. This is what St. Joseph must renounce, according to Auden, and so must atone through “silence” and by becoming what the narrator calls “the Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity”; in other words, by taking on the stereotypically feminine traits that other men have made into these stereotypes. Instead of focusing on his own strength, he uses it to serve Mary and Jesus quietly and unobtrusively. He must take on these traits in order to humble men not because they are intrinsically inferior due to their “femininity,” but because they have been scorned as such by his brothers. It is not the case that, due to his being a man, he redeems “feminine” traits by assuming them, but that he seeks reconciliation with women for the disdain of those traits.

St. Joseph, though he is a man, may not regard his being a man something to be exploited, but must empty himself and become the derided to reconcile with them. Later in the oratorio, in “The Meditation of Simeon,” Simeon muses that

As long as the apple had not been entirely digested, as long as there remained the least understanding between Adam and the stars, rivers and horses with whom he had once known complete intimacy, as long as Eve could share in any way with the moods of the rose or the ambitions of the swallow, there was still a hope that the effects of the poison would wear off, that the exile from Paradise was only a bad dream, that the Fall had not occurred in fact.

Similarly, if St. Joseph retains the least aspect of that aggressive masculinity that demeans women, if anyone iota of “machismo” remains, the atonement cannot be complete, the alienation endures and Adam’s aspersions remain a viable abnegation of moral responsibility, and so St. Joseph must employ a scorched-earth tactic for the sake of his humble service being absolute. For Auden, it’s all or nothing. There can be no compromises. Bishop Robert Barron, for example, cites the stories of slaughter in the Old Testament as demonstrating the absolute necessity that sin be annihilated, saying, “Some forms of evil are so profound that they have to be hacked to pieces,” and Auden’s St. Joseph is in this tradition. As Melinda Selmys says, St. Joseph demonstrates that masculinity

doesn’t have to be about being in control, or asserting authority, or proving oneself to other men. St. Joe is definitely not a coward. He’s not lukewarm. He’s not a sentimental milquetoast. But he’s also not a swaggerer. When his family is threatened, he doesn’t get himself a sword so that he can fantasize about taking down Herod. He quietly moves them to a safer place in the night. His concern is not to look cool and impress other guys, it’s to do what will actually keep his family safest.

When he finds out that his bride-to-be is pregnant, in spite of the fact that he lives in a highly patriarchal society and tongues are bound to wag, he thinks “How can I deal with this quietly and mercifully?” The fact that he would naturally presume that she had cheated on him almost disappears from the text. His masculine ego is not front and center. This is not about proving that Joseph is a man, and that he will be respected. There’s no evidence that he tried to figure out who had been taking his woman behind his back, or that he had any particular desire for revenge. Instead he Bible tells us that he had two concerns: first, to obey the law. Second, to avoid disgracing her.

From a worldly point of view, St. Joseph fails as a man. He is not wealthy. He doesn’t fight the bad guys and win. He flees under cover of darkness. He’s a cuckhold. He doesn’t assert his sexual rights over Mary. He’s not a stud. He doesn’t show off his intelligence. Most of what he does can be described using words that have historically been attributed to femininity: silence, caring, consideration, submission, obedience, humility. This is a masculinity that I can respect. A masculinity that safeguards, supports, upholds, behaves with quiet courage and makes no bid for the limelight. A masculinity that doesn’t need to attack womanhood or forcefully assert its strength or superiority. A masculinity which is deeply Christian and deeply traditional.

He will be given no sign but must believe this woman, the new Eve, who is bearing the fruit of the Tree of Life that must be eaten. And even if she is a liar, he still intends to deal with her quietly. It is through “silence” and by assuming the unjustly scorned feminine stereotypes, not through ostentatious quests for retribution or honour that St. Joseph can make atonement. Christ dies for the ungodly, but St. Joseph, who is not Christ and cannot make that sacrifice, must still die to himself for the sake of Mary, who is godly, though he does not yet know it.

St. Joseph’s Cross

Auden’s St. Joseph, finally, does not protest his personal innocence and therefore the unnecessity of his call. Neither does he confess to a guilt he does not have, or say that his masculinity itself renders him guilty by association, or make it “normal to talk of ‘men’ as a problematic category.” Instead, Auden has him silently take on the guilt of his brothers and atone for it by showing mercy to a woman in profound need, though it undermines the honour that the world expects of a man. He shows mercy to her whom he reasonably believes has sinned against him when the world of men demands retribution and the protection of his pride, and even if he were to renounce his union to her he would do so mercifully, to minimize her scandal, not expecting anything in return. His goodness is done for its own sake and for Mary’s sake, not to seduce by appearing a “nice guy” or a feminist “bro.” He works hard to support Mary and her Son and does not make their journey about himself. He even goes beyond the image of fatherhood that Pope Francis presents:

A good father knows how to wait and knows how to forgive from the depths of his heart. Certainly, he also knows how to correct with firmness: he is not a weak father, submissive and sentimental. The father who knows how to correct without humiliating is the one who knows how to protect without sparing himself … He has a sense of dignity. He must punish, but he does it in a just way, and moves on.

This does not presume to be atonement for any sins women have committed against men, or to by itself be all that is needed for full reconciliation. But it is still service done for the sake of love, in the hope of achieving atonement.