In the world of improv comedy, there is a practice called “yes-and.” In an improv session, if something strange or shocking or difficult to understand is mooted, the next person in the session does not resist or attempt to backpedal or debunk what has just been said; instead, they say “yes, and,” followed by something that recontextualizes the jarring remark, or doubles down on it to the point that it takes on the quality of the absurd.
This Advent I’ve been thinking a lot about the “yes-and” of live comedy in relation to the “both-and” of Catholicism. It’s fairly common knowledge that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke have significant discrepancies and that the received “Christmas story” of piety and culture is an amalgamation of the most iconic elements of both. From Luke we get the census, no room at the inn, the shepherds, the “multitude of the heavenly host,” the heavy focus on Mary, and the Gospel reading well-known both from Midnight Mass and from A Charlie Brown Christmas. From Matthew we get the star, the Magi, the three gifts, King Herod and his massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt…and today’s Gospel reading, with its focus not on Mary but on Joseph, an upstanding man who doesn’t want to cause problems or make people suffer, even the woman he thinks just cheated on him even before their marriage was formalized. He “resolves to divorce her quietly,” a handling of the situation that would leave Mary (and Jesus) with a difficult but manageable life; He might have grown up in conditions similar, in fact, to those of the woman at the well in John 4. (I wonder if, in meeting the woman at the well, Our Lord thought “that could easily have been My mother and Me.”)
Yes, Joseph is an upstanding man and the upstanding thing to do in this situation, given the standards of the time and place, involves making Mary’s life difficult but not unbearable. Yes, that is the case, and being upstanding is not enough. He must put aside whatever natural doubts he has about Mary’s pregnancy and Gabriel’s explanation of it and learn to trust that sometimes God throws even the best of us for a loop. Luke’s Nativity happens in a situation of material support—from angels and shepherds if not from respectable society—whereas Matthew’s happens in a situation of spiritual and cultural angst.
Luke gives us a heavy-handed government (yes, historians think it’s unlikely that Augustus Caesar really ordered the census described, and Luke depicting it happening anyway makes the tax farmers of Judea and Syria look even worse for—this is speculative on my part—possibly having done it on their own), and Luke gives us poverty, but he gives us little in the way of infanticide, genocide, adultery, and exile. For that we have to go to Matthew. Yes, it seems like a more somber and grim way to tell the story, and there is a reason for that; God entered into history and in doing so, even from His mother’s womb, experienced genuine ambiguity and danger, not just comfort and support. Yes, Joseph would have been justified according to the moral law and the standards of his time and place in refusing to entertain Mary’s or Gabriel’s explanations of God’s action, and the fact that he would have been justified shows the need for mercy, for grace, for doing not only the right thing, but the trusting thing of faith.
It might seem unusual to wrap up these Advent reflections by associating the Gospel with improv comedy, but here we are nevertheless. One might say that the insight about people and about the world that gives us improv comedy is the same insight that gave us the Nativity, and the Incarnation for that matter. Some things can’t be planned for or “done right” in a way that guarantees the best of all possible worlds. Sometimes something jarring and arresting must enter in.
Speaking personally, this is difficult for me to accept; I like regularity, predictability, and certainty. I don’t think I’m in the wrong for liking those things either, when I can get them, but sometimes—often—the world simply does not work that way. Strange, dangerous situations—in which we are pushed out into the cold and the wind, must leave our homes to escape trouble or oppression, must believe wild stories about angelic visitations—are all around us. Sometimes in life there comes a moment where must say that yes, the situation has escaped us. In that escape we must trust that grace, healing, and light can enter in.
Image: St. Joseph’s Dream by Toros Roslin, a medieval Armenian manuscript illuminator. From Wikimedia Commons.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.