+ ‘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 will call him Jesus’.
How would you sum up Christianity? What is it really about? Is it about treating others with respect? Lot of people do that, not just Christians. Is it about love? Yes, Jesus said ‘love God, love your neighbour’, but we are all made to love, not just Christians. Real love is the inner meaning of our faith, but what is distinctive about it – what makes us different from well-intentioned humanists or muslims?
Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Romans, he is writing to an important church that doesn’t know him and wants to get it right. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, descended from King David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God by resurrection from the dead. Christianity is about Jesus, truly God and truly human, crucified and risen from the dead. Jesus: Incarnation and Resurrection. What we say in the Creed. Everything revolves around this, even the year. Incarnation at Christmas and Resurrection at Easter. At the Children’s Messiah on Friday we learnt that even British sign language follows this pattern. Christ at Christmas is [arch] and the rest of the time is [hands].
But now we are coming to the end of Advent, in four Sundays we have looked at the Last Judgement, John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus and now we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Christmas is near (though this year is the biggest gap between the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day, next year the fourth Sunday of Advent is Christmas Eve!)
Our readings come in a three-year cycle. Next year on this Sunday we hear the angel Gabriel tell Mary she is to be the mother of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. The year after we hear of Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth and tell her about the miraculous pregnancy. This year, however, we have Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus.
Our view of the Christmas story is a mash-up of the two infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke with elements from Christian tradition. This is what we are going to get in the readings and carols at our Community Carol Service tonight and it is good; but it is also good to look at what Matthew says alone. It is familiar but may seem a bit strange shorn of the shepherds, swaddling bands, manger and animals. So let’s look at it.
For a start it is centred on Joseph not Mary, she is passive but central. Mary doesn’t speak, and nor does Joseph; but Joseph has dreams, he listens and he does things. In this he is like the Joseph in the Book of Genesis with his amazing technicolour dreamcoat. Matthew looks at the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view not Mary’s. It is a social and moral dilemma solved by an angel, not the promise from an Archangel we find in Luke.
Joseph and Mary are engaged. He finds she is pregnant by someone else and he plans to divorce her quietly to avoid exposing her to public disgrace. This sounds weird to us because engaged people don’t get divorced and any relationship breakdown is very public. The Greek word for ‘dismiss’ in our translation is actually a technical term for ‘divorce’, the verb ‘apoluo’. To understand it we need to know about Jewish marriage customs at the time. Firstly, engagement was much more significant than today. It was more like the first stage of marriage and that’s why breaking an engagement needed a divorce. A couple usually got engaged when the girl was in her early teens and she lived with her family for a year or so until the marriage, when she was escorted to her husband’s house with feasting and dancing. During this time she must remain a virgin.
If she didn’t, there were two options facing a man in Joseph’s position who wanted to do the right thing. He could follow the Law in Deuteronomy 22.23-27 and bring her for a public trial to see if it was adultery or rape. A conviction would lead to the stoning to death of either the father of the child or both him and the woman. Even if this didn’t lead to capital punishment it would bring public disgrace on Mary. The other option was to follow Deuteronomy 24.1, draw up the bill of divorce himself, get it witnessed and end the relationship without a public trial or execution. There would still be disgrace.
But then the angel leaps in to tell Joseph in a dream that God is the father, not a lover or rapist. Joseph must adopt the child, call him Jesus and he, the Son of God and Mary, will save us from sin. Why didn’t Mary tell Joseph this? We don’t know, perhaps she was shy, she was probably about 13, and Matthew’s story has no Annunciation. Matthew does however say this was to fulfil the prophecy from Isaiah in our first reading ‘behold a virgin shall conceive’.
The Jews though this was a prophecy of King Hezekiah, born in the normal way of a young woman at the court of King Ahaz. Christians realised that it actually looked forward to another descendant of David, Jesus, and his mother actually was a virgin in the human sense. Mary is Jesus’ mother, God is Jesus’ father. Joseph was Jesus’ foster father and would have married a relation, so Jesus really was a son of King David.
Here we have the first part of Christianity. Jesus is fully human, the son of Mary. Jesus is fully divine, the literal son of God. In Jesus humanity is joined to God. Not in an abstract way but in a real family in a nation prepared by God for just this. This means that, thanks to Mary and Joseph, all humanity is joined to God. You, as a human being, are directly joined to God. This is worth celebrating at Christmas. And it is worth waiting for the second part, the sequel, at Easter.