It would be easy for someone who knew nothing about Christmas to look around at the way our culture celebrates it and assume that it was basically a festival for children. School nativity plays, Christingles, trips to see Santa at the shopping centre, and in the middle of it a baby, greeted with joy by those who come to seem him in his manger crib. It all seems very simple, very magical, very comforting.
Today’s Gospel reading, though, reminds us of how selective the stories we tell our children tend to be. For all sorts of very good and understandable reasons we tend to sanitise the story of Christ’s birth for them, and eventually we forget that the cosy story we tell is really only part of the truth.
The Christmas story is actually full of violence and fear – King Herod’s murderous rampage is central to it . It is a story of homelessness and exile, and, as we see here, it is a story about shame, or the threat of it.
Matthew’s version of the story, unlike Luke’s, puts the emphasis firmly on Joseph. Mary is hardly mentioned, and completely silent. Her opinions, thoughts and feelings are not recorded at all. They are not even considered. In a culture like that of first century Palestinian Judaism that’s not surprising. The position of women varied across the ancient world. In some cultures they were freer than in others, but in the land of Jesus’ birth their lives were often very restricted, just as they are in some parts of the Middle East still. Respectable women kept themselves firmly in the background. So it’s not surprising that Matthew doesn’t even seem to ask how Mary might be feeling as her pregnancy becomes obvious and her child, in time, is born. Luke’s focus on her is unusual, an indication, probably, that he was from a non-Jewish background or that he particularly wanted to highlight the way Jesus brought women out of the shadows and gave them honour and dignity.
Matthew concentrates on Joseph , though, and the appalling dilemma he finds himself in. Nowadays the pregnancy of an unmarried woman wouldn’t be likely to cause much comment. Almost half of babies born today in the UK are born to mothers who aren’t married, who are either on their own or, more often, just living with their partners. Most couples I marry here are living together; many have children already. No one bats an eyelid; we are just happy to be able to celebrate with them as they make a public commitment. Unintentional pregnancy might still cause problems, but few people see it now as a disaster, or something shameful.
You don’t have to go back very far, though, to a time when attitudes were very different, when a birth out of wedlock was a scandal, something to be hidden, something which could cause misery to both mother and child alike. In first century Palestine it was even worse. Mary would have faced not only disapproval but also very real danger when her pregnancy became known. So-called “honour” killing is nothing new; the penalty for adultery in the time of Jesus was death. As well as the risk to her, her pregnancy would have brought shame on her whole family, and on the man who was engaged to be married to her. No wonder Joseph is worried. What were people going to think of him? Either that he had slept with her before her marriage, or that someone else had and he had been fooled into taking on a child who was not his. He would either seem wicked or weak. If he stuck by her he risked landing himself with a wife who everyone would be whispering about behind her back for the rest of their lives – tight-knit communities never forget these things. If he cast her off, though, what would happen to her? She could well have been left with no support at all, no home, no respectable way of earning a living.
It was a desperate situation, and Joseph is in a desperate dilemma. He is a good and compassionate man, and he wants to do the right thing. He has just devised the best solution he can think of, to dismiss Mary quietly, in the hopes that somehow her pregnancy can be concealed, when the angel appears to him in a dream, assuring him of… well, assuring him of what?
All the angel really tells him is that the child who Mary has conceived is “from the Holy Spirit”. It’s hard to know what the people of Jesus’ own time would have thought this meant. They didn’t understand the process of conception, and they knew nothing about genetics and DNA, whereas we can’t “unknow” those things. There is such a gulf between our world view and theirs that it is really quite impossible to climb back into their minds and work out what they thought this phrase might imply on a physical level about Mary’s pregnancy. There were plenty of stories from Greek and Roman mythology of gods fathering children on human mothers who they just happened to have taken a fancy to, producing half-human, half-divine offspring, but the early Christians were at pains to try to make sure people didn’t see Jesus in those terms. He was fully human yet somehow also fully divine too, not some hybrid, and they would have been quite horrified to think of God acting like those pagan deities, of any sort of physical or sexual act taking place between God and a human woman. Whatever Matthew and Luke were saying, they weren’t saying that. But if we can’t be certain about what they thought physically happened, we can be very sure what they thought it meant spiritually, and why it mattered so much to them.
In saying that this child was “from the Holy Spirit”, the angel meant, at the very least, that he was coming into the world in accordance with the purposes of God. His birth wasn’t a mistake or disaster, however shameful it might look to other people. God was at work in this child and through this child.
Miraculous birth stories are quite common in the Bible, a sign that a child is destined for a special role. They might be born to women too old to conceive, as Isaac is to Sarah, and John the Baptist to Elizabeth. They might be born to younger women who seemed unable to conceive, like Hannah, the mother of Samuel. But none of those births were to unmarried women, none of those births would have caused scandal –quite the reverse, they were joyfully received when they eventually happened.
In the child of Mary, though, God is doing something quite new. That’s what Matthew is telling us. God is revealing himself, his grace, in the midst of what looks like dis-grace, he is declaring holy a situation which to everyone around looked completely unholy. Jesus’ birth points us forward to his death on the cross, when he will hallow a squalid form of death reserved for those the Romans wanted to humiliate. His birth, like his death, proclaims that there is no situation God will turn his back on, no darkness too deep for him to light up, no place and no person he cannot dwell in and call his home. Matthew echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah. This child is Emmanuel – literally “God is with us”. That’s what the angel wants Joseph to know, that this child is God’s work, God’s gift, not an unwanted embarrassment whose arrival will wreck the lives of those around him, but a child who’ll bring hope and joy and love.
The children of unmarried parents, or parents married too late to be quite respectable, have often been called names which hurt and scar – illegitimate, bastard - but the angel is clear with Joseph “You are to name this child Jesus. It’s a beautiful name, the same name as the ancient Israelite hero Joshua, and it means “God saves”. “He will save his people from their sins,” says the angel. No matter what it looks like to others this is a child whose life will be a blessing not a curse. God is with us, God saves – those are his true names.
And that is good news, wonderful news, for all of us, because we can all find ourselves in a mess, or having to deal with a mess inflicted on us by others. It’s easy to feel at that point that there is no hope, no way back. But even in those moments, this story tells us, especially in those moments, God is present, and where God is, blessing and life abound.
I’d like to finish today by reading a meditation written by Sally Foster-Fulton*, which imagines what Joseph might have said to us.
“I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear. And I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. Not much is said of that and that’s fine with me — I didn’t do it to gain recognition or status. I don’t really know why I did it. At the time, things were so unreal — but the baby was definitely real and so was the danger to its mother if I didn’t do the right thing. I just needed to figure out what that was. I decided at some point that the right thing was love. The right thing was trust. The right thing was the hardest road, and so we started down it together.
I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. And I don’t think we really understood who he was or that that name would echo through time — long after our journey was through. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear — and now it whispers in your hearts as you sit here [ in the quiet of this night.]
I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. And I don’t think we really understood who he would add to our family — who he’d gather to himself: how he’d make you all not just his family, but his body, his very soul.
It was the right thing — love. The right thing often leads you onto the hardest road, but it’s also the most beautiful. Let’s start down it together.”
*Sally Foster-Fulton from “Hope was heard singing”.