There is something pretty cool about Matthew’s treatment of the birth of Jesus (Lectionary Year A). For one thing, in this day and age of sound bites and very short attention spans, Matthew’s version is wicked succinct, so you could say he communicates in much the same way as we do these days. This is all he really says about the actual birth: (1:18a) “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” and (1:25) [Joseph] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. But in between, Matthew tells quite a story to which we ordinary folk can relate!
Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus captures our imaginations with angels and stars and shepherds and mangers and the rest of the magical mystery we so lovingly present in pageants and carols. But Matthew’s version catches the sharp edges of our broken hearts with the messy-relationship-stuff and emotional paradox in which plain old, ordinary Joseph finds himself. In between verses 18a and 25, Matthew presents us with the kind of real life drama and turmoil we all know when faced with disappointments, family conflicts and our very-own-bruised-egos.
Here’s the thing. Based on the culture of the day, Joseph had already entered into the contract of marriage and he was betrayed by his now-pregnant betrothed. It would have been normal that a betrayal as significant as this would lead a person to walk away. In fact the law called for either public stoning to the death or divorce so Matthew. Given the context, few of us could not empathize with Joseph’s choice to cut his losses and quietly divorce Mary.
It would also have been normal for everyone involved to have been pretty freaked-out. Talk about some serious holiday stress…betrothed, betrayal, pregnancy, punishment, divorce, loss, census, angels, crazy dreams—yowzaa! You know what they say about family and the holidays. Are you feeling it yet…shopping lists, baking, wrapping, decorating, visitors, office parties, school concerts, kids clamoring, snow storms, shoveling, sitting in traffic, multiple church commitments, the Christmas blues, wishing it was all over and hearing from the pastor to look to the stars and hold a baby!? Yeah, if we stop to think about it, we can identify with Joseph’s many-faceted, real life, messy, ordinary people kind of challenges.
And then, with Joseph poised to react in an ordinary fashion, the Holy Spirit intervenes in a dream and shows Joseph another way (this seems to be a pattern with God, right?), another reaction, another not-so-normal response. I wonder if we might be so moved?
David Lose, who you have heard me quote before, reflects this week on his blog that, “Because Mary and Joseph aren’t merely characters from a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people…we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance.”
And the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — the easier it is for us to imagine ourselves also being used by God to accomplish God’s purposes despite our ordinary-ness and the messiness of our lives and our relationships.
Jesus’ birth “was just a birth, like millions of others, unremarkable in every possible way. Which is, once again, the point. Jesus came as one of us. Jesus was born like we are, lived as we live, loved and laughed and suffered as we do. And died as we will die. And on the third day, God raised him from the dead, that we might no longer live in fear of death.”
In his rendition of the story, “Matthew paints a picture of the utter normalcy of the holy family. Which means, of course, he tells us about the complexity, the confusion, and the frailty that attended this family, just like every other family. Indeed, there is nothing exceptional about this couple or birth … except that God works through it to save, to draw near to us in love, grace, and salvation.”
Beloved, as Christmas arrives in your heart, may you know how extraordinary a moment that is in your ordinarily messy life and may you see (even if only in a dream) how God might work through you to accomplish God’s purpose.
With blessing and prayer
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade