We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the “baby Jesus in the manger.” It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental about Christmas but we also have to be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in its coming to pass.
Let’s look at the gospel in three stages: Distress, Direction and Decision.
1. DISTRESS – The text of the Gospel says, This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
The Marriage is off – When we read in this text that Mary was found to be with child before Joseph and she were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation is. The pregnancy prior to marriage brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the marriage permanently off.
Why is this? We read in the text above that Joseph was “a righteous man.” To our ears this sounds akin to saying he “was a good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpret “righteous” here to refer generally to his gracious character and virtue. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship also includes the notion that to say he was “a righteous man” also means that he was “an observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the law prescribed. And this explains his decision to divorce Mary on account of her apparent lack of virginity prior to the marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:
But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you. (Deut 22:20-21)
This of course is quite extreme to modern ears, but we can see too how far we have come in making light of promiscuity compared to ancient times. No one would argue that such a thing be done today, and rightly so. However this was the landscape that the Law provided Joseph.
What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the First Century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or simply permitted (cf John 8). Joseph, on account of his virtue and patience, looks for, and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e. follower of the Law) it seems he decides that divorce is surely required, even if stoning is not.
Now this leads us to two important reflections. One about Mary, and one about Joseph.
Regarding Mary, we can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her “yes” (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. WE know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet know this, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary indicated exactly how she conceived, do you think YOU would merely accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in a real danger, culturally speaking and it is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to his plans.
Regarding Joseph we can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point. But we can assume when Mary was “found to be with child” prior to the couple’s being together in Marriage, the social pressures on him from family to be legally free from Mary were likely strong, whatever his feeling or plans for her were.
As we shall see, Joseph too will undertake great risk to obey God. And thus we go to the second stage of the story.
2. DIRECTION – The text from the Gospel says, Such was his intention [to divorce] when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Be not afraid – One will note that the principle exhortation of the angel that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful since fear WAS a very big factor in this whole matter. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church indicate that the thing the angel said he should not fear was God’s wrath, since in fact, he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think the thing he should not fear was taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.
One can also imagine however some other fears that also needed to be consoled by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. Likewise neighbors and others could shun him. As a business man Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to use his skills and ply a trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph bucks the law and custom and “brings evil into his house” rather than “purge the (apparent) evil from the midst” of his house. But the angel directs his not to fear. This will take courageous faith.
The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? Not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What of the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual.
Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph too has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not fear for God has given him direction. But as is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.
3. DECISION – The text from the Gospel says, When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
Now given all that we have reflected upon, we can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Joseph manfully does this. He makes his decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information on how his family and others in the town may have reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on his promise that Joseph need not be afraid.
Heroes of Faith! But here again note the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Quite literally their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.
And, as we know their difficulties were not over in the crisis of that first Christmas. There was a badly timed census which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in the ninth month! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt riding a donkey in the ninth month is all that comfortable either. Then there was no room in the inn and Jesus had to be born in a smelly animal stable. Shortly thereafter they must flee through the desert to Egypt for Herod sought to kill Jesus.
Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a hallmark one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. But this where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may hope for the perfect Christmas but there is no perfect Christmas. Yet, Jesus will find you where you are – in real life, in the imperfect Christmas where loved ones may have been recently lost and there is grief, where a job has just been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor or families are experiencing stress and strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of Joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find him, in the real Christmas of your life.
This song is an old African American Spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what the these words say:
I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name
Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name
Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name