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MATTHEW 1: 18-25
(The 4th Sunday in Advent)

The genealogy done (wobbly as a mould of jelly though it be) MT stakes claim for Messiahship & virgin birth. Whatever evidence we find in Hebrew Scripture as to Jesus' Messiahship, except for MT's perpetuating the LXX misquote of Isaiah's original, we're on our own with the virgin birth. We have to make up our hearts as well as our minds about its historic & religious value.

The whole idea of 'Christmas' is a Johnny-come-lately for early Christians. For them, what makes Jesus Messiah is neither royal descent, nor virgin birth, but resurrection. We can neither prove nor disprove that either. Only believe. Or not. Creeds are declarations of faith, not history. The truth of any or all of the Christmas events depends upon whether we receive them in faith. What is the underlying faith-truth of the Joseph, Mary, & Jesus story for us? How to use what MT says to stimulate the imagination and capacity to believe beyond what can be proved? Otherwise, what we preach may be as unconvincing as the average crib scene.

John Irving, in his challenging 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' describes the Meany family's crib thus: 'on the mantel..a creche with cheaply painted wooden figures. The cow was three-legged, propped against a rather menacing chicken almost half the cow's size..a gouge through the flesh toned paint of the Holy Mother's face had rendered her obviously blind and so ghastly to behold that someone in the family had thoughtfully turned her face away from the Christ Child's crib..Joseph had lost a hand - perhaps he had hacked it off himself..one angel's harp was mangled and from another angel's O-shaped mouth it was easier to imagine the wail of a mourner than the sweetness of singing. But the creche's most ominous message was that the little Lord Jesus himself was missing. The crib was empty - that was why the Virgin Mary had turned her mutilated face away; why one angel dashed its harp and another screamed with anguish; why Joseph had lost a hand and the cow a leg. The Christ Child was gone - kidnapped or run away. The very object of worship was absent....' (p.168). What Irving writes intrigues me more than most crib scenes. How to intrigue?

Mary & Joseph have a tough time of it. They're tough customers to survive. Not the almost unbelievably pious ones we turn them into. If listeners are going to connect at any deeper level, it may be less because of the holiness of the crib & more because they identify with the tough time it represents. A sexual predicament, an inconvenient pregnancy, or fear of it, in their own life, or their family? How can they, too, have an outcome with some joy in it. Not least for baby! Technology may be bringing virgin birth closer as an option for today's Mary or Joseph, but the miracle might be more a matter of surviving the stresses creatively. It's prayerful, emotional, practical support, all meanly wrapped in love, that today's soon to be parents & children need. Not much help focussing on a Christmas Crib of old if we overlook those for whom there is no room in today's inn of the heart! More, does the Christmas story have anything to say to those who even given today's miraculous fertility programmes long for a child but can't have one of their own let alone God's?

Isn't it the right of every child to be in some sense 'conceived by the Holy Spirit' if not 'born of the Virgin Mary'? At  least within a believing community? 'Original Blessing' (Matthew Fox's term) is a more helpful perspective than 'Original Sin'. Which pole do we operate around in conceiving & bringing up our children, risking things for God, or denying the Spirit room to manoeuvre?

It takes a man of great Spirit to be open enough to move away from his original resolve to 'dismiss Mary quietly'. Even going that far was pretty great! Joseph's good name comes tumbling down with Mary's. The overly righteous of family & community probably condemn him for acting unrighteously & not invoking the Law against Mary, but he acts with God's own compassion. Taking the high moral ground may  mean we walk away from someone in a predicament leaving God to hold the fort down there in the depths with them. In there where we ought to be with them. In the muck of the world's stable with all the world's Mary's & Joseph's. Not in some play nativity scene, but in real life, as we help bring somebody to birth for God.

Mary is the butt of even more innuendo than Joseph. They're not exactly reciting 'conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary' down in the local synagogue, are they? Nor is that the gist of the stage-whispering at the well & over the roof tops & down in the alleyways of Nazareth either.  Mary & Joseph & their whole families are shamed by what appears to have happened. God can be a hard taskmaster.

Like the other four women in Jesus' genealogy & their partners, Mary & Joseph, are in a sexual predicament. Mary, like the others, has to stand up to Law, society, & gossip to bring Someone to birth for God. Instead of running fast in the opposite direction, as church has often done, or just fulminating from a safe distance, can we find the compassion to be present to people in today's family, societal, & sexual predicaments? And not pontificate from ivory tower or pulpit tottering on shaky high moral ground.

Because he's a righteous person, Joseph's heart is in love with God. Before Mary, even. He lies awake trying to make sense of what's engulfed him. I bet PS 130 gets a right going over! An angel appears. Oh for a more than human solution to our larger than life dilemmas! Mind you, the angel doesn't get Joseph off the hook. Only further on! But at least the point is made clear. That doesn't always solve our problems either. As we long for an answer to what we're going through, or one close to us is, even if our angel appears in some form, we still have to do the going-through-it bit. Joseph's angel telling him, "Don't be afraid" is an encouragement to all of us who have to enter into scary territory to take that next hesitant step. Fear, not hate, is the opposite & the enemy of love. Sometimes we're slow to recognize human angels God sends us in time of deep need, because we're too busily listening for the flapping of wings. The Tobias & the Angel story is background. The great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi is said never to have given his angels wings because  they'd never be able to fly with the wings artists insist on drawing! Can you fly with yours?

The revelation that Mary's child is to be a boy rather pre-dates today's high-tech ways of telling  the sex of the unborn child. Earlier still, God says to Jeremiah [1:5] "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you". God's scan is always life-giving, life-bearing, life-purposeful. Jesus' name is also given. He's to become what he's named. Maybe today's fad of naming after celebrities & other transitories deprives us of God-given values & purposes as names to grow into?

There are many opinions as to whom Isaiah's talking about in 7:14+,  but as a 'long-bow' prophecy of Mary & Jesus, it may still have some not-too-literal mileage in it for us as for early Christians.

Discipleship is all about living out Emmanuel. Living out "We are the Body of Christ!" Never mind the 'Toys-R-Us' kind of advertising. With a line like "God-R-Us", who needs it?!

Joseph publicly accepts Mary as his wife &, therefore, Jesus as his son. Seals his obedience to God's will by naming Jesus as instructed. We're used to venerating Mary's obedience to God's plan, & rightly so, but Joseph deserves a guernsey in the obedience stakes, too. He's a role-model  lots of today's boys & men need desperately. Don't be put off Joseph by soppy statues in church niches. What's with the male psyche that allows church to fob us off with mainly Mary? Obedience like hers & Joseph's helps us all, male & female write new chapters of the ongoing Old Old Story.