Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Worlds apart, though not a great distance, Mary and Joseph bear parallel but private burdens. What thoughts must have raced through their solitude?
Oh God, what would he say if I told him the truth?
What will he do if I say nothing?
Oh God, what will happen when he begins to notice that I am pregnant?
If he dismisses me, what will become of me? What will become of this child?
Oh God, you began this work in me. How will you see it through to its promised end?
Oh God, what would she say if I asked her for the truth?
Would I want to know?
Oh God, could I ever learn to love her and this child that isn’t mine?
Am I not enough to wait for?
Oh God, how could she do this to our promised future?
Mary holds the weighty knowledge of her intimate, personal involvement in God’s saving plan, as another life takes on its own weight within her body. But she holds this knowledge alongside an utter incapacity to explain that plan to others. Reading only Matthew’s text, we know at least that she has not ventured to tell Joseph.
Meanwhile, Joseph undergoes the trial of his deepest conscience: a conflict between the righteous observance of the Law, his personal instincts of compassion and discretion, and his own dashed expectations. Probably, he is gravely disappointed.
It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Our waiting now practically vibrates with the anticipation of Christmas. But we must reconcile this joyous expectancy with a hard reality foregrounded by this passage from Matthew: Sometimes the things we wait for do not arrive. We seek, we suffer, and we trust. Our desire is purified and clarified by the waiting. And in God’s time, a gift does indeed arrive, but it is not at all what we had imagined or hoped for. In its place, there stands a thing we needed so deeply that we could not name it aloud, even in our solitude, even in the dark. We could not name it, that is, until it arrived, looked us in the face, and changed everything. We did not choose it, but it chose us.
You are to name him Jesus, the angel says, for he will save his people from their sins.
Joseph had made a decision. He had resolved to exercise his agency as a first century Palestinian Jewish man. This agency would have been honored by his peers and elders. This was an agency, within the limitations of his place and time, to author his own story, to say, “This is not what I expected. This is not what I want.” But it is while prone and powerless, enfolded in the nightly chaos of sleep like the formless void at the Beginning of creation, that he is visited by a dream. A creative Word bids a better decision and a reassurance of the ultimate agency of God. In the beginning God said, Let there be…and it was good. God’s angel says to Joseph, Do not be afraid. Do not put to an end what I have only begun. This is not what you think it is, nor is it anything you even imagined. But it is what the whole creation has longed for from the beginning – including you.
Mary and Joseph are the raw, elemental materials from which a New Creation is being fashioned. A supreme pliability is asked of them, a soft, yielding, malleable surrender. Yet they are not mere slabs of clay. Such surrender to God will result in hard consequences. They will navigate a world naturally hostile to being recreated from its foundations upward. Their courageous cooperation with God will be essential.
Matthew’s account is marked by a sober recognition of the challenging circumstances in which Joseph and Mary are asked to make this response. There is the ominous threat of public shame. In its most extreme form, this could have led to the pregnant Mary being stoned at the entrance to her father’s house.
And then – behind closed windows and doors, under cover of night – there is an intensely private vulnerability. Joseph’s manhood, his socioreligious responsibility, and what today we would call his sexuality – and Mary’s – are all at the heart of his dilemma. Mary and Joseph are in the midst of constructing working hypotheses about one another’s inner life and integrity. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are both attuned to these doubts, projections, and puzzles.
But amidst the potential of shame and into the trembling heart of vulnerability there comes a third force: the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is already revealing the way in which the God of the primordial past and the distant future is God-with-us, Emmanuel. This is God within the fragility and disappointment of human waiting, within the frustration and longing of human sexuality, and within the terror and the tenderness of human hope. Through Mary and Joseph’s obedient self-offering, this is God within the generous, generative consent that will fulfill their humanity, and lead to the fulfillment of ours. The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
This child of Mary and Joseph, in the words of the apostle Paul, was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. The divine sonship of Jesus was revealed to possess unimagined height, depth, breadth and length. His earliest followers began to fathom its measure by praying their experience of the resurrection backwards. By a process of sacred remembering stretching back through his terrible death, his final week, his ministry, to his baptism, his birth, and his conception, they came to know that the Holy Spirit had all along been slowly revealing Jesus to be the Son of God with power. The church’s experience of the Son of God as Emmanuel, God-with-us, was not only confined to the remembered past. The Sonship of Jesus was prayed further backwards beyond the bounds of memory to its origin in the bosom of the Father: Jesus is the Eternally Begotten, through whom all things were made. But still further they plumbed this mystery. The Sonship of Jesus was prayed beyond the bounds of the foreseeable future forward to the Last Day, prayed as far as the limits of language and imagination would take them. These prayers reached toward an event horizon that would consummate all things but also rested in the renewed pledge of his coming every Sunday, the first day of the week. The same Emmanuel prophesied by Isaiah and named by Joseph is the Emmanuel who speaks the last sentence of Matthew’s gospel: Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The eternal sonship of Jesus Christ reveals that Emmanuel has always been God’s nature. But the human birth of Jesus, will reveal that with-ness in an unprecedented way in the loveliest of all mysteries, his Incarnation. The Son of God before the beginning and after the end becomes the Son of a human mother’s womb and the son of a human father by adoption. He is born of our flesh so that we can be born of his Spirit.
I am with you always: in fragility and disappointment; in frustration and longing; in terror and tenderness; in your most selfless hour and in the throes of breathtaking self-centeredness; in the sleep that enfolds your doubt and anguish and in the light of morning that floods your bed with clarity: I am with you. I am Emmanuel.
If what you have been waiting for has not arrived, or not in the form you expected or hoped; if the approach of Christmas brings ghosts of past regrets or fears for the future; if you find yourself on the verge of falling apart as the manic lights twinkling around you blur in a wash of tears; if the sugar, fat, and alcohol leave you overstimulated and exhausted and angry at everything and nothing; if you are persecuted by your own impossible expectations or those of others – if any of these “ifs” ring true:
This is your moment. The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
Mary and Joseph’s generous, generative consent to the divine initiative was offered in the thick of public disapproval, private confusion, painful risk, and gathering scandal. God’s initiative – as clearly as it came – retained its essential mystery. Being human, they struggled. If they had not come undone – if they had not broken open, even just a little – the words of the angel would not have had room to land and to grow in their hearts. They offered their lives to this mystery trusting in its power to do more for them than they could ask or imagine.
This is the fourth Sunday of Advent. All the Advent candles are lit, a perfect circle with four points of light, a “shape that is itself a promise of completion.”[i] But it is not yet Christmas. The long, dark night is almost spent, but the dawn has not yet broken. This is a threshold time in a threshold season, a time pregnant with power and grace. In the precious silence and stillness remaining, in an out of the way corner or a solitary walk or simply in the shower, call upon the Holy Spirit and ask:
Is there something I need this Christmas so deeply that I tremble to name it aloud? Is there something that I cannot or could not ever choose, but has already chosen me and is asking for my consent – by way of a dream or an angel, a memory of the Last Day or a desire for the First? Something broken or unfinished, abandoned or newly discovered, through which God may nonetheless be saying: Do not be afraid. Do not put to an end what I have begun in you. This is not what you think it is, nor is it anything you ever imagined. But it is yours as I am yours. Reach inward and homeward to lay hold of this greatest of gifts: your need of the one who is God-with-you, Emmanuel, to the end of the age.
[i] A phrase from Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God (the single most insightful book on the Blessed Virgin Mary that I have yet encountered).
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