19 December 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the chld conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." (v.20)


On the fourth Sunday in Advent it is tradition to celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus. She has central place in the birth narratives: she is the one who carries God's anointed ("Messiah" v. 18) who will "save his people from their sins" (v. 21). 

In this passage, however, the focus is not on the main stage. It is on Joseph, whose role is always a supporting one; he is always in the wings. Even in this passage his role is deliberately marginal as the author stresses his non-involvement in the conception of Jesus. This underlines the theological point that Jesus is both human (through Mary) and divine (by the Holy Spirit). 

Today some of us may struggle with the notion of virgin birth. It may be easier for us to consider Jesus to be genetically human but anointed or adopted by God at his Baptism. (This is what as Mark's Gospel, which contains no birth narratives, might suggest.) However, in ancient times a virgin birth was a commonplace way of saying 'this person was not merely human, but in some sense a god/God'. 

It may be helpful to think of both this passage and Mark's account of the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:1-11) as two ways of saying the same thing: Christians believe that to save us (v. 21) Jesus must be both one of us (human) and one with God (divine). How this is possible is a mystery which cannot be unravelled but only entered into. 

In this sense perhaps Joseph is a help to us. Joseph, like anyone else, has plans. He wants to be in control of his life. When he finds out that Mary who is legally bound to him ("engaged" v. 18) is pregnant, he plans to divorce her. But instead of relying on the customs and instincts that would keep him safe, Joseph enters into the mysterious world opened up to him by an angel in a dream. 

As this 12th century image from San Juan de la Peña in Spain suggests, Joseph (no less than Mary) allows himself to be touched and changed by Emmanuel (God's mysterious presence at the heart of human life). 

To Ponder

What sense does the story of the virgin birth make to you?

When plans for your life have been thwarted, how has God spoken to you?

What kind of approach is needed in order to enter into a mystery rather than trying to unravel it?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..