A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

1:18 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.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 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.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A Question or Two:

  • Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary as his wife?
  • Really?  Afraid?

Some Longer Reflections:

So Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  My question is: what is the story behind this calm little report?  In particular, WHO found her to be with child?  It is clear that this is NOT about Mary discovering that she was pregnant.  You do not need a verb in the passive voice to tell that story.  And it will not do to miss the ominous tone that the passive voice brings.  She WAS FOUND to be with child.  We use the passive voice when we want to tell a story in which larger-than-life forces are active.  We use the passive voice to express the unseen but inexorable acting of God.  We call it the “Divine Passive,” and it leaves the audience to its own devices to imagine how the invisible hand of God has carried out its purposes.

This is not the Divine Passive.  If it were, the angel would not need to talk to Joseph in a dream.

Mary WAS FOUND to be with child.

Notice that English and Greek use a verb that implies “seeking and finding.”  That implies that someone was looking.  That fits with how patriarchal culture works: there is always someone looking to find women doing something that they do not approve of.  And this also fits with how holy people act far too frequently.  Holy people generally know that you are not anywhere near as holy as they are, and they are (in my experience) glad (too glad) to point out your flaws.

In this little scene, the Holy Baritones have FOUND a woman who is out of line.  Even worse, she is sexually out of line (though the Holy Baritones find a way that everything that women do is somehow sexual: remember, for as brief a moment as possible, the president-elect’s remarks about Megyn Kelly during the Republican debates).  Mary is pregnant, and she is FOUND.

In Matthew’s story, this is the first we know about any of this.

The storyteller has only just performed the genealogy, and Mary is found (this time, by the audience) to be with child.  There is no angel to tell Mary (and the audience) that she will bear a child after somehow being impregnated by God.  The stern, quiet tone of the passive voice leaves the audience to understand what had actually happened when she was FOUND, and to imagine what would happen next.  Joseph’s intended actions make it clear that something was going to happen.

Here is what was on the books as a way to respond to a woman who was FOUND untimely pregnant: she would be stoned to death, and her father was to throw the first stone.  What was to happen next was an honor killing.  And if her father could not bring himself to participate in the murder of his daughter, studies of honor killings (both ancient and modern) show that most families have another baritone who will act to defend the honor of his family.  There seems always to be a cousin, or uncle, or brother who will throw the stone that the father could not.

Who would have thrown the first stone at Mary?

We are not told.

And so the storyteller tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man.”  What a guy.  We are told that he is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.”  What a GUY!  He plans to dismiss her quietly.  At this point, commentators generally begin to cheer for good old Joseph.  What an excellent guy.

Of course, that leaves him free and clear.  And it leaves Mary pregnant with an honor target on her back.  And there is always someone who will throw the stone that starts the murder that will protect the honor of the Holy Baritones.

How in the world would anyone call such a person “righteous?”

Do not answer too quickly.  Do not answer at all until you have listened silently and patiently to someone whom you respect talk about a daughter who was untimely pregnant.  When you listen, you may hear anger and verbal violence.  You might.  Or you might hear resignation.  Or you might hear tender love that is looking for a way to act.  Whatever you hear, wait silently and reflect.  How “righteous” would that mother or father think Joseph was when he had decided to abandon their daughter, all because she was FOUND to be pregnant?

The word translated as “righteous” is tricky.  The word is δίκαιος.  In biblical texts, the word is always, or at least nearly always, translated as “righteous.”  When Paul uses this word, Martin Luther cheers as loudly as he is able (which is somewhat limited, given that he is not yet born or terrified in a thunderstorm or ordained or persuaded of the gospel).  Paul understands the word δίκαιος to name a theologically granted righteousness before God.  Luther cheers.  Lutherans salivate.  

At this point, some older interpreters discover that good old Joseph is and has always been a faithful Lutheran.  What an excellent theological guy.

The word δίκαιος  is tricky, and you have to catch that. The word δίκαιος, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can.  He has a good reputation.  He protects it.  By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name.  He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant.  Not a thing.  And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately.  What a guy.  What a patriarchal guy.  He may not be singing loudly like a Holy Baritone, but he is acting just like one.  He’s just subtle.  

The scene suddenly reminds me of the scene between Tamar and Judah that is alluded to in the genealogy.  Tamar was also FOUND to be pregnant.  Tamar was also scheduled for execution.  She pushed back and was spared.  This willingness to push back links Tamar to Ruth and Bathsheba (and to Rahab, though we will have to think a little harder to see this, perhaps).  They all were pushed out of what was rightfully theirs by Baritones who thought they knew better.  These strong women all pushed their way back in.

In this scene, Mary does not push her way back in.

Do not read this as evidence of Mary’s submissive mildness, at least not if any of the women in my family are in the audience.  The cultural odds are good that Mary is 10 years old, or 11, or 12, or 13.  Women of that age were understood (apparently) to be adults, or nearly so.  But even though she will have been an adult, she will not likely have developed the kind of strength you will see in Tamar or Ruth or Bathsheba or Rahab.  You need a little age on you to be strong like Tamar was.

That may explain why it is that God plays the role that has always be played by a woman before.  God sends an angel, and the angel does all the pushing that is needed.  The angel mocks Joseph for being afraid of a pregnant woman.  The angel gives the unborn baby a name and a task.  In fact, the angel gives two names to Jesus.  The other name comes out from the prophet Isaiah.  This also is a big deal.  And the name is, itself, powerful.  Emmanuel.  God is with us.  In passing, this is the important part of verse 23, not the part about Mary being a virgin.  That aspect of this scene is also of some importance, but if you spend your time arguing about the Virgin Birth, you will have little time (or credibility) to invest in the other things that are required of us.  And you will find yourself thinking that “God with us” is an argument about the Virgin Birth.

The scene is not primarily about impossible biology.

This is a scene about how God is in our midst.

The scene argues that God is among us as the son of a mother who was FOUND to be pregnant by people who were too holy for their own good, and who were FAR too holy to be of any use to anyone else.  God is among us as the son of a woman who came close to being murdered.  God is among us as a person who was, himself nearly murdered, as we will discover when we read just a little further.  Herod, an UN-Holy Baritone who defended his power by any means necessary, will shortly launch a campaign to slaughter any child who was two years old, or younger.  The news this year (like every year, to tell the truth) is painfully full of children who are hunted by genocide.  Aleppo is just the latest instance of such unholy slaughter.  When you see pictures of children facing death, remember that their faces look like the face of God-Is-With-Us in this scene.

But that means that God-Is-With-Us looks like the face of a child who is so terrified that she trembles.  God-Is-With-Us looks like the face of a mother who can no longer find a way to go forward because she can no longer protect her children.  God-Is-With-Us looks at the world with the thousand-yard stare that you see in the eyes of an old man who has nothing left, no resources, no strength, no hope.

This puts a rather different edge on the old, old chant, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  As long as one child looks at the world in fear, that is how the face of God-in-our-midst will look.

This reminds me of a song you will have heard in every grocery store since Thanksgiving: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 when it was not yet clear how, or when, the War might end).  You won’t likely be singing that song in church, but you might want to listen to the original words of the last verse:

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

This little scene in Matthew’s story introduces Emmanuel as the one who must muddle through with us.  And this is a year for muddling, I would say.

One thought on “A Provocation: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s