by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Matthew 1: 18-24
Today’s gospel-reading is Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. It’s a story which Matthew places squarely in the chequered history of the Jewish people. In order to appreciate that history, we would do well to stop and read the first seventeen verses leading up to today’s gospel-reading. They come under the heading of Genealogy of Jesus, which we remember because it contains all those “begats”, a rather quaint feature of the opening of Matthew’s Gospel. U.S President Ike Eisenhower once told how he was reared in a deeply religious family where he was instructed to read the entire Bible but allowed to skip that section of Matthew with all the “begats”.
There are lots of words for birth that Matthew could have used in describing Jesus’ origin, but he settled on the Greek word genesis, a word that relates nicely to the word genealogy and replicates the title of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis – an account of the very beginnings of creation.
In Jesus’ family tree, Matthew lists all the great heroes of Jewish history. In addition, there are some whose track-record was less than edifying. Abraham was a man of faith who came very close to sacrificing his beloved son, Isaac. However, things got worse after that. Jacob, with family encouragement, cheated his older brother, Esau out of his birthright. David had Uriah killed in battle to hide his adulterous relationship with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. Among others who featured in Jesus’ ancestry were Tamar who tricked her father-in-law Judah into impregnating her so she could obtain security in his family. Then there was the prostitute Rahab who hid in her house two of Joshua’s spies who had come to reconnoitre the city of Jericho. She talked the spies into protecting her and her family when Joshua’s army invaded Jericho. And when Joseph, a true “son of Abraham” and a distant descendant of King David accepted Jesus as his son, Jesus’ lineage became even more complicated. Matthew’s point is that God could cope with the messiness of life and human frailty and that Jesus could come and live in the midst of that messiness.
Now let’s for a moment consider the confusion and messiness that overtook Mary’s life. Matthew introduces Mary’s pregnancy with a glorious understatement: “When Jesus’ mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1: 18). There is no indication as to who found Mary to be pregnant. Moreover, it would have been impossible to keep that news under wraps. It would have spread like wild-fire and the village gossips would have had a field-day. And we know the questions that Mary would have been asked had she confided in close friends: “What did your parents say when you told them?” “Does Joseph know?” “Did some Roman soldier do this to you?” Had Mary dared to say that an angel had told her she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, she would have attracted the label of “lunatic”. Still more complications and messiness were to follow.
And what about Joseph? Now we would say that he was caught between a rock and a hard place. We are told that he had secret thoughts of divorcing Mary quietly. That might have been a just solution to his problem, but it could easily have led to her being stoned to death – the penalty for infidelity as prescribed by the Levitical law. Had she escaped that, she could have ended up destitute, with no adult male to provide for her. Yet, for Joseph to marry a woman who appeared to be unfaithful to him, he would be defiled by her seeming disregard for the law. Even worse, for him to accept Mary’s child would be tantamount to his bringing an illegitimate child into his ancestral line. That child would inherit the birthright of any offspring he might eventually father. As he was wrestling with issues such as these, in a dream he experienced during the night, he was engaged by an angel, whose first words were: “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. It is by the Holy Spirit that she has conceived this child” (Matthew 1: 20). We all know that directives to stop being afraid are generally ineffective. Let’s not forget that the Angel Gabriel gave the same advice to Mary. That leaves me wondering whether angels create fear by their sudden, unexpected arrival or whether those to whom they appear are already frightened by the issues with which they are dealing. The crux of the matter which had brought an unresolved dilemma to both Mary and Joseph was that they were confronted with a pregnancy they had not cooperated with one another in creating. But to all intents and purposes they were left with the problem of resolving it for no other reason than that Mary’s pregnancy threatened her place, her child’s and her fiancé’s place in the community that would normally have been home to them.
We who have the whole of the Bible available to us between the covers of a single book can point to story after story of how God had worked through messy and shameful domestic and national situations to rescue people and restore them to hope and promise. Isaac was saved from being sacrificed at the eleventh hour, Moses, a murderer, led an enslaved people out of Egypt into freedom, Tamar, by deception, ensured that Judah would have sons, an earlier Joseph, one of Jacob’s many sons, also had dreams and rescued the very brothers who had sold him into slavery. There is little doubt that Matthew saw the event of Mary’s pregnancy, the birth of Jesus and the courageous selflessness of the second Joseph as just another episode that really belonged to the Old Testament. For Matthew, Jesus was first and foremost the fulfilment of all the prophecies of the Old or First Testament. On eight occasions in the course of his Gospel, Matthew cites Jesus or his actions as being the fulfilment of what had been proclaimed by the prophets of the Old Testament.
In the two creation stories at the start of the Book of Genesis, we hear the story of how God created the world. At the commencement of Matthew’s Gospel, we are told how God, created the world afresh in the person of Jesus, The crux of that fresh or new creation was the fact that God, in Jesus, became part of our flesh and blood, a full member of the human community. Jesus became one with us when he was born of Mary. In today’s gospel-reading, Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy of that birth in all the details with which we are familiar: “The virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, a name which means “God is with us”.
In our baptism we became even more closely linked to Jesus as his sisters and brothers, all children of God. Our family histories with their skeletons in the cupboard, with their frailties, shames, mistakes and failures are as messy and confused as was Jesus’ genealogy. None of us is beyond God’s capacity to reach out to us in love, forgiveness and acceptance. In the festival we call Christmas we celebrate the fact that the child who became part of the families of both Mary and Joseph is also born into our family. God has made our world new through him, and because of him will continue to renew it through us. Can we accept that responsibility? Isn’t that what being a follower of God-with-us really means?