Apparently there was always some question about Jesus’ parentage. That was one of those “givens” that the Christian tradition had to deal with in telling the story of Jesus, and when they looked to the culture around them, one solution was to contend that he was born miraculously, specifically, born of a virgin. That’s what was said about Alexander the Great–that he was born of a virgin, was the son of god, and, by the way, he died when he was 33.
When the writer of Matthew’s gospel began to tell the story of who Jesus was, he began, like many other ancient biographies, with a genealogy–“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” this gospel begins. We hardly ever read these first 17 verses of Matthew–name after difficult name, 14 generations from Abraham to David, [Matthew explains] and 14 generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, 14 generations. In that list of names are 5 women, 5 great-great, however-many-great-grandmothers of Jesus, and all of them women of, shall we say? questionable reputation–Tamar, the madame of a brothal; Rahab, a prostitute; Ruth, a foreigner who, frankly, seduced Boaz, a relative of her mother-in-law; Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, whom David had an affair with; and Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was found to be “with child” before she and Joseph were married. Matthew says it was through Joseph that Jesus was of the lineage of David, for the Messiah would come from that line.
“Only Matthew speaks about Joseph,” Nancy Rockwell writes, “acknowledging his doubts about the marriage, about Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, how he struggles in his mind and is disturbed in his sleep.” (The Bite in the Apple, 12/14/13) We often hear the phrase, “gentle Mary, meek and mild”–and remember, “meek” doesn’t mean milquetoast, it means totally open to be used by God. Gentle Mary, meek and mild. But similar words could be used for Joseph–gentle Joseph, allowing himself to be used by God. He was a “righteous man,” Matthew says, trying to be faithful to the law, but when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he knew that life didn’t always fit neatly into the law. The law said that Mary should be stoned to death. But, Matthew tells us, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace [or death, we might add], [Joseph] planned to dismiss her quietly.” One gets the sense that his heart was broken.
“It is easy to be smitten by the goodness of Joseph,” one commentator observes (Rockwell, op cit.). We can see a reflection of Joseph in Jesus’ later refusal to condemn the woman caught in adultery. Joseph was Jesus’ father in many real ways. He also reverses the role of husband in that patriarchal culture, at least as tradition tells it, in that he was servant to his wife, taking care of her in all sorts of situations, taking her and her infant son away to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage, providing for her behind the scenes and disappearing from view. We don’t know what happens to Joseph, though it appears that he is dead by the time Jesus begins his public ministry.
Yet here at the beginning, in Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus, it is to Joseph that the angel comes, in a dream, to announce that the child in Mary’s womb is a holy child, a child from God, and he, Joseph, is to have an important part in this child’s life. “You are to name him,” the angel tells Joseph– an important role in a child’s life– “you are to name him Jesus,” which in Hebrew means “saves.”
“There were many babies in the Old Testament with the name Save,” Walter Brueggemann points out [Day 1, 12/19/04]– Joshua, Isaiah, Hosea. “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” the angel says. He will show his people that they don’t have to be separated from God, which is another way of thinking about sin. And in fact, that’s the other name the angel gave Joseph for the child to be born–Emmanuel, God with us–just like that child the prophet Isaiah told King Ahaz about, back before the exile.
Ahaz, king of the southern kingdom Judah, is worried about the military alliance that the northern kingdom Israel has formed with Assyria, but Isaiah assures him that God has other plans for that alliance. If the king of Israel thinks that Assyria will save him, he has put his trust in the wrong savior. So, God says to Ahaz through Isaiah, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God: let it be deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” Ahaz goes all pious on Isaiah and says he won’t put God to the test, but Isaiah knows that the king has barely any relationship at all with God.
So he says, OK, since you won’t ask for a sign, here’s the sign that God will give anyway: [and remember: this is not an intelligence report. This is poetry, to get Ahaz to consider bigger possibilities, to open up his mind] “Look, a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey[typical peasant diet], and by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, [maybe in 3years? 4?] “the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be destroyed.” Who is Isaiah talking about? Who knows? Probably not Jesus. But Isaiah is almost surely not worried about the circumstances of this birth, whether it is miraculous or not. The Hebrew word here for young woman is ‘admah, which usually means young woman . It can mean virgin, but Hebrew has another word for that – bethulah –which is usually used. When the Hebrew got translated into Greek and then into Latin, the word virgine was used, so when Christian scholars looked into the ancient texts to understand who Jesus was, this is one of the texts they turned to. But, a case could be made that what both Isaiah and Matthew were trying to say was that God is with us in the midst of the direst situations.
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
“The name, Jesus,…[one writer says] is [Joseph’s] gift to the Child. Matthew says, the angel whispered it to him.” (Rockwell, op cit.) Joseph named Mary’s child Saves– Jesus– and knows him as God with us– Emmanuel. This husband of Mary, known more by his wife’s name than his own, chooses to be part of God’s story, part of God’s plan for “saving” us–from our sin or separation from God, from our fear of death, from our alienation from our true selves and each other, as well as from God.
It is up to us to decide what we will name this Child. Do we see in him, in his way, in his life, death, and resurrection, do we see in him the way out of our darkness and despair? Or do we see in him another foolish dreamer, who gets mown down by the people who have the real power. Do we see God with us in him? Or is he God-above/beyond-us, having very little to do with our lives here and now, but only after we die? Do we see in him God’s only dabbling in incarnation, in becoming flesh, or do we see in him the fullness but also the beginning of God’s incarnation in all of us, what we all might become? Is God still speaking? Is God’s Word still becoming flesh in us? Are we saved by that one death, or/and are we saved at any moment when we choose to follow in that Way, when we open ourselves up to being filled with God, so that God is with us too?
Consider Joseph, the carpenter, the dreamer, gentle Joseph, meek and strong.
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact [wrote W.H. Auden in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being]; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the usual Exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.”
The time is drawing near. Now is the moment to choose to be part of the story. Places,
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark