19 March 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

"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." (v.


The birth narrative in Matthew's Gospel only offers us part of the full story as pieced together for the standard nativity play. Its particular contribution to the patchwork gives us Joseph's family tree, Mary made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and the wicked designs of King Herod in response to the wise men who journeyed from the east in search of the child. At the end of chapter 2 Joseph continues to feature in the narrative as the means by which the family are warned of danger and told to flee to Egypt for safety. At each stage in the story Joseph receives God's messages through a dream and acts upon each of them in ways that keep the child safe.

Matthew's account of the ancestry of Joseph - as if in response to the question, 'Who do you think you are?' - seems concerned to emphasise both the continuity of Jesus the Messiah (the Christ) with generations of Jewish history, while also suggesting that Mary's child was so much more than a descendant of King David since he was conceived from the Holy Spirit.

In the creeds of the early Church, belief in the virgin birth became a fundamental tenet of faith in Christ as son of God - as the one who bore the new nature, the gift of eternal life. For some Christians, however, especially in a more scientific age, belief in a virgin birth has become a stumbling block to faith. Many would argue that God surely worked through the natural relating and intercourse of two people, rather than avoiding this biological necessity, with a sprinkling of magic dust.

Whatever the degree of literalness or poetry with which we choose to read Matthew's words, today on St Joseph's day we note and remember his role as committed partner and husband to Mary, and protecting father to the infant Jesus. Whilst acknowledging Mary's crucial role in bearing, birthing and nurturing this special child, we are reminded through Joseph of the care and sheltering protection that each child needs within a family, however it may be shaped.

To Ponder

Does belief in a virgin birth enhance or distort your understanding of God made flesh in Christ?

In what ways does Joseph's role as protector and parent speak to you of God's loving wisdom?

What aspects of your own experience of family, experienced as parent or child, do you see most clearly reflected in the sketch we are given of Jesus' family?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Liz Smith

Liz is currently chair of the Leeds Methodist District. She has conducted research into the Church as a learning community, with particular reference to the experience of women.