December 18, 2016
Advent 4, Year A
This past week I received a message from one of my nephews who has been working on our family tree... Some of you here will know that his mom and I are sisters, and through my nephew’s hard and insightful work, he has been able to discover the lives, identities, and stories of many of our ancestors as far back as the 1700’s.
It is so fascinating to discover the great diversity among our ancestors. There is something so compelling about knowing your people... knowing who they are and who they were... and recognizing that – whether we realize it or not – they are part of who we are... they are part of our story. I read, a while ago, that genealogy sites are the 2nd most popular of all available sites, and speculations suggest that this is because people are longing to know their story; people are longing to find a sense of belonging.
Just the other night my oldest grandson was asking me if I could remember the day he was born, so of course, this began a very animated and detailed account of my memory of his birth. I reminded him that while he was coming out of his mommy’s tummy I was sitting in a room just down the hall with others in the family who were anxiously waiting to meet him. I reminded him in detail how I felt, just a short while later, when I first saw him and when he was placed into my arms. I reminded him of all those who came to meet him that day, and throughout the days that followed. Essentially, what he and I were doing was remembering; remembering the people who were part of his story even before he was born; remembering the people who were part of that story even on the very day that he was born; and in all of this we were reminded of a profound sense of belonging. I say this with a painful awareness that way too many people do not have such stories to share, which is why we all must open our hearts and our arms to those who don’t.
Each year in the days leading up to Christmas, the Church has a similar practice of remembering Jesus’ birth story, based on the same assumption: as we search for a deeper understanding of Jesus’ identity, we need to discover important clues through an awareness of his family tree, along with the stories of his birth. And, as we search for these clues, we must first know that they can only be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s story focuses on Mary’s perspective, while Matthew leans more heavily on that of Joseph.
So, as we turn to our Gospel reading for this morning, we rediscover some important insights into the nature of the One being born, as we recognize some of the dynamics within Matthew’s telling of the story. But in order to better understand the point that the author is trying to make, we need to back up a bit and look at the verses just preceding this morning’s passage where we find the genealogy that traces the family line of Jesus. It begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and shows how Jesus comes from the royal line of Judah and King David. Certainly there are famous and familiar names along the way, along with a few surprises, names that you may not expect to see.
Names, for instance, of four women, none of whom is Jewish and each of whom has entered into the family through strange circumstances. Tamar was Judah’s Canaanite daughter-in-law, who tricked him into making her pregnant. Ruth was a Moabite widow when she met her future husband, Boaz. Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho. Bathsheba was King Solomon’s mother, the former wife of Uriah; she was a Hittite and an adultress. In a culture where women - even in the best of circumstances - were held in low esteem, the inclusion of these four women suggests that this one about to be born is to embrace the whole of humanity.
Since this genealogy includes not only the names that point toward the royal line from which Jesus comes, but also those names that would – presumably - just as soon be forgotten, the point is being made that Jesus also carries within his very being the marginalized, the forgotten, the despised. Clearly, Jesus carries within the very fabric of his being a profound connection with those who suffer. Knowing this genealogy offers great insights into who Jesus is. He both embodies, and reaches out to, those who society may identify as the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Following the genealogy, we then move into the reading for today, which speaks of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, primarily according to Joseph’s perspective. Mary and Joseph have been pledged to be married, a commitment as serious and binding as the marriage itself, and when Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph thinks of offering her a quiet divorce in order to protect her from the inevitable embarrassment and shame that she would receive from her community. It is within the realm of possibility that she would be stoned to death. But then in the midst of this tumultuous situation Joseph has a dream in which an angel tells him that this baby is God’s own son, and will become the Saviour of his people. And the key here for me is that Joseph pays attention to this message and trusts it enough to remain with Mary and see it through.
I think that Joseph’s role here is one that deserves our attention. Imagine, any one of us: if someone we knew became pregnant under what may be considered embarrassing – or shameful – circumstances... if that person told us that it had nothing to do with the person who we might presume to be the father, but it had everything to do with the Holy Spirit... We probably don’t have to think too long, or too hard, to imagine our response. But Joseph, in the midst of what must have been profound confusion, and doubt... maybe a sense of betrayal, and chaos... he stands firm, hears what he discerns as a Godly message, pays attention to it, and allows it to inform his decision on how to respond. In other words, Joseph does not do what so many of us might do... the way the story is told, it seems he doesn’t judge Mary, or respond in anger. Instead, he listens to God, and discovers a way forward that is faithful, compassionate, generous, and kind.
I want to offer just a quick note about the place of Virgin Birth within the context of this story: there are those who believe in an actual, literal interpretation of V.B., and those who do not, and there are many good arguments to support each point of view. But at the end of the day, it is useful to reflect on why the notion of virgin birth may be significant. That is: if this child came into the world through no human act other than Mary saying “yes” we may be led to recognize that this birth marks the end of the old humanity and establishes the inauguration of a whole new humanity: where (as is found in the genealogy...) no one is excluded; where (through a child who is born in a stable, dies on a cross and rises to new life...) weakness overcomes strength; where (through Joseph in this story) compassion and kindness overrule hatred and revenge It is, in a sense, a brand new start; God finding a way to be with us in a brand new way. It is the fulfillment of a long awaited promise.
As we read and reflect upon this story from Matthew’s Gospel, we must do so with a clear understanding that this story, along with the genealogy that precedes it, is our story. It is as intimate to who we are as the genealogy my nephew has provided is to me and my family, and as intimate as our family's birth stories are to us. I say this, because we are intimately linked to Jesus through the New Birth of our Baptism. Through our Baptism, he is family. He is family to the point that he lives at the very centre of who we are. This is a really difficult thing to grasp, since mainline traditional churches have tended to soft pedal this to the point that it is foreign to our basic understanding.
The genealogy that we find at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, which tells us that Jesus embodies and reaches out to those who are despised, and weak... marginalized and forgotten... this tells us that through our Baptism we - now – are accepted unconditionally... we – now have a responsibility to embody this compassion and reach out to others. In a recent interview, Jean Vanier (founder of the L’Arche Community) speaks about how difficult it is to live this way today. He talks about the culture in which we live as one that is driven by success and knowledge, and the more obsessed we become with this need to be on top, the greater and deeper the divisions between us. If we are driven by success, we will be driven to push over those who get in the way. If we push over those who get in the way, we will quickly not even remember that they exist. And the more invisible those on the margins become, the less this world is functioning as God creates it to be. Jean Vanier makes the point that it is only when we acknowledge our own frailty, our own weakness, that we can celebrate the giftedness of every single person with whom we share our lives, our communities, our world. It is only when we recognize our own frailty, our own weakness, that we may recognize and respond to that reality in others.
And, as we remember the place of Joseph in Jesus’ birth story, we recognize that through our Baptism, Joseph is also part of our story. Joseph serves as an important inspiration... While many might choose to hate, and retaliate in circumstances similar to his, he – instead - listens to God, and discovers a way forward that is faithful, compassionate, generous, and kind.
Joseph serves as an inspiration because he chooses to trust in God’s ways of compassion and kindness, rather than in hatred and revenge. He chooses to trust in this, and he chooses to allow this to inspire the way in which he lives; the decisions he makes. In his book, ‘The Mystery of Christ’ Robert Capon suggests that faith in the midst of life’s struggles, and challenges, and pain... faith in the midst of these circumstances is a decision to trust. Faith is a decision to trust that through Jesus, God reaches out to each of us in our weakness and vulnerability; our frailty and our fears, and through this, equips us to do the same for others. Certainly, we cannot single-handedly change the world, but if every single Christian was living in this way, the world would be a very different place.
As we prepare to celebrate this birth, which is absolutely central to who we are, I pray that we may remember to trust in God’s all inclusive embrace; to trust as Joseph trusts; and to make decisions that are filled with compassion...