Have you heard the phrase, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans”?
I think Joseph’s story is the ultimate illustration of that phrase.
I mean this guy….
Here he is happily engaged to the right and wonderful Mary, probably making plans and excitedly talking with his friends and family about his new life as a married man.
His beloved with whom he is engaged but not yet married shows up pregnant.
***pause*** Game changer!
In Mary and Joseph’s time, being engaged was a contract that carried the same status as being married. But, the act of marriage was actually a two step process:
- First there would have been a formal exchange of consent between the couple before witnesses
- Then the couple would set up a home (typically with the man’s family) and begin living together.
In the very first verse of scripture that Phil just read we get a clue that Mary and Joseph were living between steps 1 & 2: it says, “…Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together”.
It would not have been uncommon for a year to pass between the two steps – after all, a lot of planning needs to happen to accommodate a new married couple. I imagine an addition to the family compound would have had to be constructed, Joseph would have likely been busy putting his carpentry skills to good use crafting furniture and household items to welcome his new bride into their marital home.
So, here they are – engaged – bound by the religious laws and social contract of marriage, but not yet LIVING together – ***pause***
Mary is still a virgin and she is with child.
Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.
Or in this case, God is what happens!
The Matthew depiction of Christ’s birth is incredibly brief. It starts with, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way” and ends shortly thereafter with, “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus”.
And yet, there is so, SO MUCH to unpack here!
But, I think we miss out on it because of the other extraordinary elements of this story, including: the appearance of an angel, and of course – the big elephant in the room – the virgin birth!
There is an understandable temptation to becoming sidetracked by the scientific improbability of the idea of a virgin birth. But if you do that, you miss the whole point of what Joseph is learning, and what we can learn from him So, I beg you – don’t go down that rabbit hole!
Don’t discount the author’s invitation to something deeper.
The focus of this story is not the biological process, it is the theological milestone, that God is made incarnate and dwells among us.
What we know about the birth of Jesus comes from the two Gospel writers of Matthew and Luke. Luke focuses on Mary and emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action in the world, “let it be done to me according to your word”.
In Matthew’s account, the focus is on Joseph and toward the active component of the human response. For instance, in the 1st and 2nd chapters of Matthew we learn that three times Joseph is visited by a messenger from God in his dreams. And three times he must take action.
The messengers appear to Joseph in his dreams in the form of angels.
Ever notice how angels always show up in biblical stories when heavy-lifting is required?
In this case, the angel appears to move Joseph into action.
Jesus and Mary were betrothed, an ancient term that in Jewish culture meant – between steps 1 and 2.
The first time the angel appears Joseph has just learned that Mary is pregnant with another man’s child – or so he thinks.
Who can blame him for assuming his bride has been unfaithful? And as painful as that presumed betrayal must have been, Joseph was plagued by another excruciating choice – what to do about Mary?
The author of Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man – he lives according to the law. Well, in those days, there were only two choices in the face of infidelity. He could publically declare his injury, in which case Mary would have likely been stoned to death, or he could divorce (also read dismiss) her quietly. Even in the latter, Mary would be shunned and Joseph would be publically humiliated. This is a family in turmoil. They are, in modern vernacular, a hot mess with no good options for how to move forward.
Can we just sit with that for a moment….
We are so accustomed to the stained glass version of wonder and beauty around the birth of Jesus that we can easily, if not intentional skip over the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a whole host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced. And Mary! She must have been terrified and I imagine a little miffed that Joseph could assume such a thing about her. This is not a couple joyfully celebrating the gift of life. They are in the throes of sorting out a divinely complicated relationship.
Life is messy for Mary and Joseph. This is the time of year we get bombarded with images of “home and hearth”, and warm family gatherings. Even though we may want the season of Christmas to fill us with wonder and joy, sometimes our lives are messy too.
Life is what happens when you are busy making plans, even at Christmas.
All of us, at one time or another, have been confronted with situations that seem to have no good outcome.
Maybe, it’s having to choose between ending a relationship or staying in it for the sake of others.
Maybe, it’s having to choose between quality of life over quantity of life.
Maybe, it’s having to choose between paying the electric company or buying food for your children.
What do we do when faced with difficult decisions? Agonize. Overeat. Take it out on the people closest to us at the time. Try to get someone else to make up our minds so we can blame the outcome on them?
I feel for Joseph and his “no way out” dilemma. I imagine he tossed and turned all night. Maybe even screamed and cried! For one fleeting moment he was living his dream. Then in the very next breath, it’s all gone. It wouldn’t surprise me if Joseph ruminated about all the ways he could get back at Mary for bringing this horrible situation on them – or maybe I’m just projecting.
I would conjecture that he paced the room and went over his options –again and again. Until, early into the wee hours of morning, exhausted and resigned, Joseph the righteous, kind hearted, and generous man decides to quietly dismiss Mary and walk away from his dream.
So, we all know Joseph doesn’t abide by that intention (He features prominently in our creche scenes!)
His plans are interrupted by an Angel who appears in his dream and tells him to believe Mary. Writer Alice McKenzie imagines the conversation going like this, “Here” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows into manhood. He will need – not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name”.
First, let me say that it is hard not to hear the context of our current #MeToo culture in this story – when a woman tells you about her personal life – believe her, JOSEPH!
But, that cheekiness aside, the angel – telling Joseph to name the baby is significant. In Luke’s telling, Mary is the central character and she is the one directed to name the baby. But, in the Matthew version Joseph is given that task. Actually, it would not have been unusual for either the mother or father to name the child in that time. The author of the Matthew gospel was trying to communicate two things:
- Joseph demonstrates his acceptance of this child by giving him the family name.
- More importantly, Joseph’s family name descends from the line of David which secures Jesus’ claim to Davidic ancestry as foretold through the prophet Isaiah.
Joseph is vital to connecting this story from the past to the future.
Even though we know very little about him – what we do know… is that when Joseph hears God’s message he responds. He takes action by accepting the role of father to God’s child. Joseph’s reluctance turned to trust and he risked everything to foster incarnate Love into the world. I suspect grandparents who take in their grandchildren or foster parents know the complexity of Joseph’s story.
Joseph is saying yes. He is saying yes, to loving, nurturing, and raising someone else’s child. A child he never saw coming. A child that would change his world – and ours, in extraordinary ways!
God’s message of hope and peace for us began in a situation of total chaos and crisis. In this story we learn that God worked through real people with real challenges. It wasn’t a fairy princess who was chosen to bear the savior – it was a not yet fully wed peasant girl. It wasn’t a successful business merchant or political leader chosen to name and care for Jesus, it was a man with questions and doubts.
From this story we get to glimpse a God who uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That was true of Mary and Joseph and it’s true for you, and I.
Working through this particular scriptural text, I was left with an indelible impression. The same angel that spoke to Joseph and called him to take action is – through this story – still speaking. Calling, not just anyone – but, you – me – us, to foster incarnate love into this world. Love is still the answer. Glory be to God in the highest!