Thursday, December 25, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 1

Matthew 1:18-25:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  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.

It's just not poetic, darn it.

We're so accustomed to hearing the nativity story from Luke, year after year after year at Christmas Eve, that to read Matthew's rather more bare-bones account just feels, well, wrong.  No shepherds.  Only one angel, and that one angel is skulking around in Joseph's dreams instead of showing up in full daylight, bold as brass.  No particular suggestion of census or journey.  No manger, no stable, none of the stuff without which there's no Christmas pageant for the kids to put on.  The whole virgin birth business is there, sort of, although Matthew skirts around the edges of it rather than making it front and center as Luke does.

Looking backward in Matthew's gospel doesn't help either; the only thing before this account in Matthew is one of those tedious genealogies one is more accustomed to find in Old Testament passages, with all the "begats" in KJV-speak.  The vast majority of the names are quite foreign, outside of those old genealogies, although there are some familiar folk.

That genealogy only goes back as far as Abraham, for that matter, and does include Isaac and Jacob; four women manage to get included (Mary being the final one), and while the story of Ruth and Boaz has achieved something of a heartwarming reputation, there is nothing heartwarming about Judah and Tamar, and your church bluenoses probably don't want to spend a lot of time on Rahab and Salmon.  but of course Boaz and Ruth lead to Jesse and Jesse leads to David.  At that point the names get a lot less familiar until you finally get to Joseph.  Matthew is oddly concerned with pointing out that fourteen generations elapsed from Abraham to David, another fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile (the NRSV uses the word "deportation" (which puts a joltingly relevant twist on that story), and fourteen generations from the exile to the Messiah.

We don't hear from Mary at all -- no prophetic Magnificat here.  For that matter, we don't hear from Joseph either, although he is in many ways the principal figure in the story as Matthew tells it.  He is at least given credit for being a "righteous man," although his plan to "dismiss" his unexpectedly pregnant wife-to-be seems righteous only in comparison to having her put to death, which was an option.  An angel shows up in his dreams just as he resolves to do this, to avoid humiliating her in his eyes, to warn him off this plan.  Instead, Joseph gets the word to take her as his wife, and be the earthly male parent to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He gets a name to give the child, a bit of scripture to back up the whole cockamamie story (Matthew loves to do that -- drop in bits of scripture to back up his story), and...well, that's about it.

Indeed this whole "birth narrative" is hardly that at all, more of a narrative of a family-in-the-making threatened by scandal and a rather quiet dropping of a bomb into their already-tumultuous situation.  It's a little confusing that Matthew first announces Mary was "found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" back in verse 18; exactly how did they know that, and if they knew then why did Joseph have to be told again in his dream in verse 20?  One almost wonders why Matthew bothered at all.  While Luke spilled a lot of ink on his birth story, neither Mark nor John bothered at all.  John gave us that fancy prologue about the Word, but nothing about the child.  Mark jumps into the story with the adult Jesus showing up to be baptized.  So it wasn't mandatory.  Why, then, does Matthew feel the need to include this dry, spare account?

One reason shows up at the end of this orbit of twelve days (so you'll get no spoilers here).  The other is at least partly suggested by that genealogy, leading us up to Joseph and Messiah-Son.  To wit:

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

It's why Matthew lays out a genealogy with big names like Abraham and David.  It's why Matthew wants to drop some scripture on us.

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

Even from the beginning, Matthew wants us to see that this is no ordinary child, as ordinary or extremely human as the circumstances of his birth might have seemed on the surface.  The Spirit is acting in this somewhat chaotic family-contract setting, moving against what seem to be righteous impulses to do something beyond ordinary righteousness and blowing a hole in polite society's expectations to do something that made no sense to polite society.

We will be back to Matthew, circling back around to him at the end of this cycle.  But for now, his word to us is simply this:

This is what (or who) we've been waiting for.

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