Matthew 1: 18-25
Into all our realities comes the Christ … Into our complacency comes the Christ … Into our arrogance comes the Christ … Into our distress comes the Christ … Into our ambiguities comes the Christ. [Each had been the subject of a homily during Advent.]
An ambiguity at this time of year is the holiday season itself — the Yuletide/Winter Solstice/Saturnalia/Christmas season and the conflations of sun-god worship, fertility rites, evergreens and tinsel, gift giving, and birth of the Christ Child, Son of God. The ambiguities are compounded for us in the southern hemisphere when symbols of light in the darkness, warmth in the winter, indoor festivities, hot food, and so on, are as confusing as the shape-shifting between St Nicholas, the kindly Bishop of Myra, and Santa Claus, the Coca Cola swilling elf.
In Christendom, the Christian appropriation of pagan Winter Solstice was effective and convincing in ways it no longer is. Perhaps we’re seeing now this reversion to a pagan celebration. For most Australians Christmas is a word that means "end of year party", "hope for rebirth", "celebration of children and family", none of which requires a Christian faith.
So, there’s this big ambiguity with respect to this time of year — that’s before we consider Jewish and other holy days. As the church, then, what do we celebrate? Hugging to ourselves the meaning of Christmas, pouring scorn on secular and post-Christian gatherings? Pretending that everyone is, at heart, excited at the birth of Christ? Accepting that the true reason for the season is evident in shopping mall nativities and North Pole installations?
"Into our ambiguities comes the Christ" — but how so? Perhaps Christ comes by way of a humility that acknowledges the checkered history of Christendom (the still present, though compromised, influence of the gospel on Western hope and dreams), a clear-eyed appraisal of fertility cults and nature worship, and a reaffirmation of Christmas as unveiling and subverting a dominant culture marked by "all maleness, righteous Law observance, the willingness to abandon the pregnant girl, the murderous ruler, the slaughtered children, the aspiration to kill ‘the king of the Jews’." (Bill Loader*)
The Christ comes, in 2007, as gift and task — as gift of wisdom and task of discernment — discerning true grace from jingle promotions, shopping sprees, and naivete.
Our naivete is to think that we can resolve all ambiguity. It’s a dangerous naivete called fundamentalism, and one form it takes is biblical literalism. Yet the biblical text is, quite literally, a mesh of allusions, word-play, paradox. The Bible resists our desires for easy and passive revelation, instead offering various texts as testimony to movements of a Spirit in which the Word of God as gift and task confers dignity and freedom.
The Hebrew text, for example, the text of the prophet Isaiah, is no simple prediction but a promise of dignity and freedom for all those willing to face the ambiguity of Emmanuel — "God with us" which also can mean "God against us". God with us in the compassion of Jesus. God against our self-righteousness. The Word is gift and task. The assurance of divine compassion. The call to become compassionate.
Isaiah is also the text whose Greek translation underpins Matthew’s story of Mary as a "virgin". The original Hebrew prophecy, as we’ve heard this morning, refers to a "young woman". The story of the virgin birth has inspired a Christian faith in the impossible for centuries, but ambiguities abound: a botanical understanding of reproduction in which the "seed" has to be placed in the woman who is like a garden in whom the seed grows until birth; the full humanity of Jesus undermined by divine insemination; the sexual repression implied in reverence for a "virgin mother" — not to mention pagan (Greek and Roman) accounts of divine-human conception.
The Christ does not come to take these ambiguities away, but to engage us by way of gift and task. How will the gospel proclaimed by us confer dignity and freedom?
A closer reading, from Joseph’s point of view, can help. It takes a person of the Spirit to be open enough to move away from his original intention to "divorce [Mary] quietly", though even that intention was upright in the context.
A consequence of his fidelity is that Joseph’s good name comes tumbling down with Mary’s. The overtly "upright" of family and community probably condemn him for acting unrighteously and not invoking the Law against Mary, but he acts with God’s own compassion. Instead of running fast in the opposite direction or just fulminating from a safe distance, can we find the compassion to be present to people in today’s family, societal and sexual predicaments?
Because he’s an upright person, Joseph’s heart is in love with God. Before Mary even. He tries to make sense of what’s engulfed him — perhaps in light of God’s affirming other women of ambiguous circumstance in the ostensibly patriarchal salvation history that is also Joseph’s family history: Tamar the prostitute, Ruth the Moabite, Bathsheba the wife of Uriah whom David had killed.
An angel appears in a dream — figure of ambiguity itself, intermediary between the divine and the human. And the angel, we note, doesn’t get Joseph off the hook. Only further on! As we long for an answer to what we’re going through, or one close to us is going through, even if our angel appears in some form, we still have to do the difficult work of love — the task remains. Joseph’s angel telling him "Don’t be afraid…" is an encouragement to all of us who have to enter unto scary territory to take that next hesitant step. Fear, not hate, is the opposite and enemy of love.
For Joseph, the honour of welcoming the Child of God into his home comes under the guise of receiving his betrothed and her illegitimate son. As far as the world was concerned that is what he had done — but Joseph believed the angel and through the angel, Mary, and knew that he was entering a mystery he would never be able to explain — not even to himself. His kindness and generosity enabled Mary and the child Jesus to have protection and security during the early years of the child’s life. Joseph trained him in the family trade of carpentry well enough for Jesus to make a living well into his adult life.
And it says much for the relationship between Joseph and Jesus that, when Jesus is trying to explain his relationship with God, he uses the name he would have used as a toddler for Joseph — Abba ("daddy" or "dada").
How will the gospel proclaimed in and by us confer dignity and freedom? In its teaching us, with all the world’s shamed ones like Mary and Joseph, to stand up to Law, society and gossip; in its inspiring us to help bring somebody to birth for God.
* Bill Loader: Revd Professor William R. G. Loader (Murdoch University, Western Australia). There are some interesting things on his page.