Here are the poems, Star of the Nativity, December 1987, by Joseph Brodsky.
In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold, to horizontality, more than to a mountain, a child was born in a cave in order to save the world. It blew, as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.
To Him, all things seemed enormous; His mother's breast, the steam out of the ox's nostrils. Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door ajar. He was but a dot, and the dot was a star.
Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away, from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end, the star was looking in to the cave, and that was the father's stare.
Let us pray. Holy and gracious God. I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim your word. So send your Holy Spirit upon us all, that we might hear the word, we need in our lives. This day, I claim you again my rock, my Redeemer. Amen.
Was he righteous? Was he just scared? Now, according to the gospel writer Matthew, Joseph was a righteous man, unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. For fear of public disgrace, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly.
Which is good, I suppose given that the admissible punishment for adulterous women was stoning. Where at least that's the punishment that was on the books from Deuteronomy 22, "They shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father's house and the men of the town shall stone her to death, because she has committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father's house. So you shall purge that evil from your midst."
So maybe a quiet dismissal isn't quite so bad, given the alternative, in this profoundly unsafe world. For a young woman engaged to be married, but found pregnant, with so little agency of her own, beyond the actions of men. Joseph was a righteous man, we are told, and so he planned to dismiss Mary quietly, but where does that pregnant teenager go? Does she go to the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, housing and then exploiting pregnant women?
Does she get kicked out of her own parents home and finds her way to the Y2Y shelter in Harvard Square? We don't hear any, any of Mary's perspective in this version of the Christmas Story, only Joseph's friends, the Magnificat is saved for another time. And so much of this story, the way it gets handed down from generation to generation, has celebrated Joseph for protecting Mary from public disgrace, from exile and from violence. But I have to wonder, Church, if this act of supposedly righteousness, was not an act of self preservation for Joseph himself? Would his boys mock him for having his lady pregnant from another man? Would he get any more carpentry jobs once the word got out? When he walked down the street would the neighbors cluck their tongues at the cuckolded Joseph? Would he be rejected from his religious community? The joke of the town claiming that his wife was pregnant by a spirit. And so Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. Maybe for her benefit? Maybe for his? Maybe he was righteous? Maybe he was just ashamed?
It was another Joseph, Joseph Brodsky, our poet, he was just 23 years old in 1964. That was the year that the Leningrad KGB arrested him and charged him with the crime of malicious parasitism. He was not sufficiently devoted to the country, they claimed, at least not in the Soviet Union, in 1964. He was not sufficiently productive, they claimed. A writer of decadent poetry, admits a nation of enforced laborers. Joseph Brodsky, they claimed, was a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers. Who failed to fulfill his constitutional duty to work for the honesty and the good of the motherland, and perhaps most threatening of all, he was a Russian Jew, at the time when Jews were being pushed from Russia.
And so after years of intimidation, of a forced institutionalization in a mental hospital, after conviction and sentenced to hard labor at work camps in the Arctic Circle. Brodsky fled his home in 1972, with a suitcase that was packed full of a typewriter and two bottles of vodka and the collected poems of John Donne. Joseph would leave behind his son. He would leave behind his Mariana, to whom he would spend the next 20 years writing poems. Fear and threat of the authorities forced another Joseph to flee, because they tried to shame him, for that which was not shameful.
The scripture this morning, reads her husband Joseph being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. And right there, right at the end of that sentence, right at the end of Joseph's rope, right as he had resolved to dismiss this vulnerable woman, right as he chose fear and shame, right as Joseph had resolved to protect himself and maybe Mary, the gospel says. But, but then God intervened. But then an angel of the Lord appeared and everything changed.
Beloved, this is what I love about God. God refuses to accept what the world considers shameful. God rejects the premise of shame. God refuses to shame the poor, the unwed, the downtrodden, the unproductive poet. God refuses to shame vulnerable women and scared men, hear me clearly, Church, God does not deal in shame. And this God, our God is so committed to a shameless world, that God intervenes in Joseph's dream. The angel of the Lord says what God always says, "Do not be afraid." And God rejects the premise of Mary's public disgrace. There is nothing to be ashamed of here.
Beloved, maybe you know this shame. Maybe you know this fear, the fear that public disgrace might swallow us whole. The shame that somehow, something in us, of who we are, is so profoundly disgraceful that we should hide it from public view. Where guilt nags us about our actions, we have taken in the past. Shame convinces us that we are not worthy. We are not valuable, we are not precious children of God. And there are a thousand variations on this pernicious lie. We hear the lies, we hear the lies that we are too poor, too uneducated, too fat, too queer, too weak, too warm, too female, too fluid, too disrupted, too undocumented, too young and too old. Too black and too Brown and too mixed and too disabled, and too ill and too incarcerated, too unstable and too unproductive, too broken and too messy, to be loved.
They are lies. All lies. And to this fear and this falsehood and this shame, God enters in God with us, a child born in the cave, in order to save the world. And you heard it proclaimed by the psalmist who sings, "For it was you, in my mother's womb, you who formed my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, my God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made".
To our fears of our shameful existence, God reminds us that we have been knit together by the Holy One. Each, each fearfully and wonderfully made.
I've spent the past few years learning how to mend clothing, learning how to knit up, what has become unraveled, learning how to put patches on the things that are worn thin. It's one thing to know something in your mind, it is another to get that knowledge into your hands, so that your fingers have the marks of the needles and know how to stitch. Over those hours and hours of needle pricks and straining eyes and the slow steady work of stitching up my beloved's most favorite sweater. I've discovered, in my hands, that God is a mender. God is a repairer. God takes what is considered disposable and slowly, skillfully, stitches back together all of our broken parts.
Church, there is no shame in elbows that become bare or seams that pull apart or velveteen cuffs, that have brushed and frayed on those Leningrad streets. Well-loved things wear out. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. And remade and repaired, and reworked by our God. God decided to repair the relationship with us, through the birth of Jesus Christ, not rejecting our humanity as shameful, but embracing it as Holy. Slowly we are stitched together again. In Joseph's fear, he planned to dismiss Mary privately, but God chose instead, what the world considers shameful, to be a source of God's repair. Shame is not from God. Shame threatens our flourishing, as the people that God has called us to be, and God rejects that shame.
Joseph Brodsky fled those who would try to shame him as a poet. Shame him as a Jew and the story of his life is far more complicated than simple. Though he did win the Nobel Prize and serve as poet laureate in this country. He fled not to Egypt, but to Ann Arbor.
Church, I want you to hear these words from his poem. December 24, 1971.
Herod reigns, but the stronger he is, the more sure, the more certain the wonder. In the constancy of this revelation is the basic mechanics of Christmas. That's what they celebrate everywhere for its coming together push tables together. No demand for a star for a while, but a sort of good will touched with grace that can be seen in all men from afar, and the shepherds have kindled their fires.
Snow is falling, not smoking, but sounding chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain. Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child. He who comes is a mystery; features are not known beforehand, men's hearts may be not quick to distinguish the stranger.
But when drafts through the doorway, disperse the thick mist of that hour of darkness and a shape in a shawl stands revealed, born a newborn and Spirit that is Holy in your self; you discover, you stare skyward, and it's right there. A star.
May your Christmas be shameless this year.