A Eulogy for Charles
Written & Presented by Rev. Brian Combs, 6/1/2019
I never called him Eddie, Charlie or Chuck. Only Charles. In a name, I wanted to express deference- Charles knew about taking up residence in a dumpster and the shakes of new sobriety and I was just getting exposed to poverty and addiction. I wanted to express respect- Charles was the unofficial street mayor of Asheville and I was a kid pastor arriving in town without endorsement.
Mary, the 12-year-old peasant from Nazareth, had been locked in the bathroom, hysterical and crying, for over an hour. She had gone through the box of pregnancy tests praying for a false positive, but the results kept coming back the same. Two pink lines. Joseph was on the other side of the door falling apart himself, ruminating about the shame coming to his family’s name, the canceled carpentry business orders once word got out, if it was the milkman’s baby.
Swollen from the tears, Mary left with her secret and went back to her parents’ house. Exhausted from the anxiety, Joseph went back to his apartment and passed out on the pillow. After the sleep overtook him, an angel came in a dream and revealed that God was abandoning heaven to show up on earth wearing diapers. And that he would be the man responsible for tending to all of it.
Nine months later, when the Magi arrived with their gifts and the star was high in the East, the focus was rightly on the warm halo around the newborn and his mother. But we can never be too curious about Joseph and why God chooses him to be the father of the Holy Family?
Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Even with four different narratives, the Gospels never give Joseph a speaking line. It’s not that he didn’t have a voice, just that he wasn’t a loud or boastful man. His faith was expressed in deeds of kindness, moments of presence, strokes of reassurance, holy acts that made life a bit more manageable for those around him but were never intended to attract the attention of biographers.
Jesus lived for 33 years. There are a few recorded details about his childhood and much about the 36 months of his public ministry. But the formative time in-between, we know very little. Just that he was with his dad. Likely they put on shop aprons together every day, learning to be level on the level and how to take a piece of olive wood and shape it into something useful. By the time Jesus left home, he knew how to work with his hands and invited other laborers to come and follow him.
But Joseph, most of all, was chosen because God needed someone willing to parent a mess he didn’t make and a family that was not his own. An unplanned pregnancy, questionable paternity, threats of stoning, ruined reputations. The Holy Family is the Church’s first dysfunctional family, and Joseph was the only man willing to say yes when he didn’t have to.
When you hold up the lives of Joseph and Charles, there’s a striking resemblance. Charles wasn’t flashy with his faith, but if there was a leaky roof on an orphanage in Bolivia, he was there to hang a shingle. If there was a four-by-four cedar post, he was there to router out a peace pole. And if there was a journeyman needing a paycheck, a new ministry needing credibility, a woman needing shelter, a trail needing hiking, a compatriot needing a salute, and children with someone else’s DNA needing home, he was there too. Biology and blood didn’t matter. If you were in his life, he tended to you like family.
After death, there’s a tradition of assigning an additional name to someone that best describes their primary ministry. Brother Lawrence was named saint of the kitchen because he prayed while washing dishes. Damien was named saint of the lepers because he chose to live in a colony of infectious disease. Mother Teresa was named saint of the missionaries because she worked on the streets of Calcutta.
In Christianity, the names we give one another matter. For taking responsibility for the people and problems that were not yours, Charles Edward Burns, you are the saint of adoption. You adopted the untidiness of our lives, and for that, you’ll always be father.