As many of you know, the previous two years, I was the chairperson of the board of the Arizona Opera, in which Patricia and I are both involved, and the other day we were speaking with one of the daughters of the general director, a young fifth grader who had just been rehearsing for her part in her school’s production of a play based on “Mary Poppins,” and that raised a trivia question I wanted to ask.
As most of you will remember, Julie Andrews played the part of Mary Poppins, but there was a reason she was free to do so. Does anyone remember “why”?
Well, as many will also remember, Julie Andrews had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle, both in London and on Broadway, of the truly great musical, “My Fair Lady,” but when it came time to do a movie of “My Fair Lady,” those who would finance it were concerned about the box office appeal of the not-that-well-known, especially to American movie audiences, and still-rather-young English singer-actress, and so they dubbed the voice of the late Marney Nixon, a skilled voice-over singer who sang the “Winstons taste good/ like a cigarette should” commercials, among others, dubbed the voice of Marney Nixon whenever Eliza would sing, but the face appearing to sing was none other than the incredible Audrey Hepburn, a better known, more bankable movie personality — and a fine actress.
Audrey Hepburn, ah, a fine person, as well, who has since departed us. More trivia: Does anyone know the name of the last movie in which she appeared?
Ironically, her last role was in a largely forgotten film considered Stephen Spielberg’s least impressive. In the 1989 movie, “Always,” of all things, Audrey Hepburn portrays an angel, an angel dressed in a white top and pants. As one on-line commenter said, “If angels look and sound like Audrey Hepburn, I won’t mind being dead.”
It was only because of my wanting to check something about that movie, “Always,” that I recalled — no, I had completely forgotten and still do not actually remember — that Audrey Hepburn played a “senior” angel in that film.
You see, I sort of resent “Always” because it is essentially a rewrite of a movie that was almost sacred to me. That other movie was special because, though I had not seen it since, it had blown me away emotionally a good thirty or so years earlier, when, as either a pre-teen or teenager, I had watched it on a fairly small black and white television with my mother.
That original movie is a World War II movie, and I was led to believe that its fantastical — I wasn’t sure "fantastical" is a word? — that its fantastical story was told the way it was to hold up morale of Americans both in the service and at home. The original movie is a World War II movie from 1943 or 1944, you’ll find both stated if you look it up, titled, “A Guy Named Joe.” I had been so moved by the movie when I saw it that I never forgot it. Some of you might remember it as fondly as do I.
The movie featured Spencer Tracy as an Army Air Force pilot and head of a wing, Irene Dunn played his love interest, who was either a support person or a nurse on the island on which this wing was located, and Van Johnson, no relation to me, played a young pilot who is assigned to the wing, and to whom Tracy’s character, the guy named Joe, takes some dislike and resentment, largely because Johnson’s character becomes smitten with Dunn’s.
Tracy’s Joe is a bit of a daredevil, and is lost and killed on a dangerous mission, and as Van Johnson's character falls for Irene Dunn’s character, reluctantly, the grieving Dunn character seems to fall for him, but does not really want to acknowledge that. But she does want to protect him.
Meanwhile, in heaven, the angel whom the character, Joe, encounters is not Audrey Hepburn, but the great Lionel Barrymore, as a — dead, of course — legendary general, a “senior” angel who counsels Joe as a junior angel about how Joe’s jealousy toward Van Johnson’s character was not generous toward his beloved Dunn’s character.
OK; I’m not making this up. When Johnson’s character is himself scheduled to go on a high risk mission, Dunn somehow manages to climb into his plane and take off without his being able to stop her. As she is on the dangerous mission, the “dead” Joe, obviously an angel and responding to what the angel “The General” had told him, speaks to her, guiding her on how to fly the plane and avoid being shot down, and giving her encouragement to save her life and to return to Johnson’s character, even though that character is his own replacement as the man in her life.
My point is, the Joe in “A Guy Named Joe” is a selfless and giving — and loving —person.
Now, the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew does not give us any description of the angel who appears to a different “Joe” in a dream — we know him better as Joseph and the Catholics as Saint Joseph in Matthew’s (and, for that matter, in Luke’s) telling of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, and of course, no one saw that angel, — the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew does not give us any description of the angel who appears to Joseph in his dream, but I doubt the angel looked like Audrey Hepburn in a white pants outfit or sounded like Lionel Barrymore. But like Spencer Tracey’s “Joe” in “A Guy Named ‘Joe’,” the Biblical Joseph responds in a perhaps even more selfless and giving — and loving — manner and proves himself a fore-runner of that movie character. After brief appearances in the childhood of Jesus in these two versions of the Gospel, Joseph, who is not even named in either of the other two versions of the Gospel, disappears from the story of Jesus, and is only indirectly referenced when Jesus is referred to as a “carpenter’s son.”
But the quality and importance of Joseph, Joseph, Joseph. The first male born in a Catholic family at least used to be often given that name, and, of course, it is what Jose means in Spanish and Portuguese.
And we Protestants are probably inclined not to recognize that this “guy named Joe,” this Joseph, is a marvelous model for any person of faith; his similarity to Abraham as we first encounter him as Abram in the book of Genesis, where God tells him to leave his home and go to a new place — and without questioning, Abram does so, — is probably not coincidence; both men respond without questioning to what they understand to be the will and wish of God: Abraham to leave his home and travel to Canaan, Joseph to stand by his pregnant, but not by him, fiancée. And if we proceed a bit further in Matthew’s account, Joseph is again spoken to in a dream by an angel and told to flee to Egypt immediately following the visit of the Magi, which, while the camel is perhaps the highlight of the live nativity featured again last night in Florence, the visit of the Magi occurs not at the birth of Jesus and not in a stable, but in a house, and, by tradition, twelve days later.
But in both cases in the Gospel, Joseph is selflessly and unquestioningly obedient to God’s call, to God’s will.
So if I may say, this guy named Joe was even more selfless than Spencer Tracy’s Joe.
And is he, the Joe whom we know as “Joseph,” not then a wonderful role model for us, not just for us males, but for all Christians? Joseph, Joe, who when God calls, says not, “Let me check my calendar,” but, “I’m on it!”?
Next week, our final Sunday in Advent, we’ll look at Mary, and I am sure I shall say very nice things about her, and those of you who are or were Catholic will nod and understand much better than I how exalted she is, the most exalted in Catholic and Episcopal and Orthodox eyes of all human beings save Jesus Himself.
But you and I are not likely to be asked to serve as did Mary; God came to earth as a baby but once, and is not likely to be in need of a virgin for a similar task — “virgin” being a condition few of us would likely fit, anyway. That was a one-time requirement. But just reflect on Matthew’s story as we have it: Joseph’s fiancée is pregnant, and in a dream an angel tells him that she is pregnant “by the Holy Spirit”? I know Bill Cosby is properly out-of-fashion, but Cosby’s Noah comes to mind, “Noah, this is God!“ “Right.”
But unlike Cosby’s Noah, Joseph does not question; Joseph seeks to follow God’s will.
Now, I am not saying that we as individuals should put aside all of our faculties, and, to be blunt, I am not sure an angel, whether looking like Audrey Hepburn or sounding like Lionel Barrymore, has ever come to me in my sleep saying that God wants me to do this or that, or that such and such is God’s will, but do any of us not know at least the major part of God’s will for us, the major part of what God wants of us? “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or as I prefer, “Love your neighbor as you have been loved by God”? To amplify on these things I say so often, I occasionally use words from Micah — the same Old Testament prophet from whom the writer of Luke concludes that Jesus must be born in Bethlehem — to amplify, I occasionally use the passage of Micah that says this:
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with our God; that is how we emulate the original “Guy Named Joe,” a man who if Matthew and Luke got it right might not have been needed to bring Jesus to life, but who certainly can serve as a model for our own lives, a role model for us as we seek to follow God’s will without asking “Why?” but with instead responding, “Yes, Lord.”
And in the name of the one whose birth that guy named Joe witnessed, Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.