A Severe Nativity

Sunday December 22 – Advent 4
Gospel: 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

No shepherds, no camels, no donkey, no innkeeper. The angel doesn't come to Mary, who has no manger, stable, or cave. The wise men are un-numbered, unnamed, and not Kings. The birth of Jesus as related by Matthew is far different from our composite tradition, and even from Luke's version.

In our weekly bible study we summarised our memories of the tradition and then tried to hear the story from Matthew; we tried to filter out the rest so that we could hear Matthew's vision. He would not recognise our Christmas festivities! Marcus Borg wrote recently

Imagine a Christmas pageant based on Matthew alone. Dominated by Herod’s plot, it would be ominous, threatening. Imagine what kind of music might appropriately accompany it – perhaps the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars” or the theme from “Jaws.” Matthew’s story anticipates the end of Jesus’s life when another Pharaoh, the Roman governor of Judea, would succeed where Herod had failed.

Ominous and threatening, said Borg. I kept seeing the dark walls of The Matrix. This is a story full of portent. I wondered what could be said on Sunday and Wednesday this week; the mood of the story is grim.

.... All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. 
TS Eliot

Our first observation was that Jesus is one of us. He is not an airbrushed hero from an impeccable background and a pure bloodline. The family tree is full of skeletons. Most unusually, there are four women mentioned in his genealogy; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. (1:1-7) All of them are tainted women from the perspective of Jesus' culture; so too is Jesus' mother, pregnant out of marriage.

God is involved from the beginning. Inseparably interwoven with this genealogical information is the fact that Jesus is Son of David and Son of Abraham; a Israelite's Israelite. His genealogy is symmetrically arranged around Abraham, David, Babylon and the Coming of the Messiah; three groups of two seven generation periods. The very numbers are a sign, and deliberately drawn to our attention. The unmistakeable conclusion is that this is the hand of God; a portent.

(Did Douglas Adams read Matthew?)

If Matthew felt constrained to have a Messiah who was also born of a virgin because this is how heroes were born, he has ticked that box. Given that Augustine and the Romans are ignored in this part of the narrative I wondered if this was so; it seems at first that Matthew was interested in purely Jewish concerns and expectations, but then we have the Magi.  If there were rumours about Jesus "poor" birth line, they were dispatched by this story.

Jesus is "all God." Joseph "had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son."

God is the invisible hand behind the events. God guides Joseph away from divorce. (1:19-22) God warns the wise men not to return to Herod, (2:12) alerts Joseph to flee to Egypt, (2:13) calls him back, (2:19-20) and warns him away from the territory of Archelaus. (2:22) In all of this there is the refrain that the prophets are fulfilled. (2:23, 2:6, 2:15, 2:17-18, 2:23) The Messiah's coming is the work of God.

God names him; Jesus means Saviour, and at the beginning we are told (1:21) "he will save his people."

Synchronicity. Joseph was a dreamer who fled to Egypt and returned to the Promised Land. Another Joseph was forced into Egypt, too, and his people eventually returned to take the Promised Land. He was one of the brothers of Judah in 1:2. The history of Israel will echo throughout the Gospel.

The World Agrees with God. The wise men endorse the claim that God is at work. They have observed the star; they have read the signs. Matthew is essentially saying to doubters, "The whole world knew." And these wise men were wise enough to know they had met something beyond themselves, and far greater. Not only were they overwhelmed with joy, (2:10) but they knelt before him and paid him homage. (1:11) Their gifts were lavish, and fit for a king.

A Clarification for Later. We are told that the King of the Jews is the same person as the Messiah. (1:17 27:37) That ironic sign on the cross could have had another line: aka Messiah.

The journey to the cross begins at the moment of his epiphany; that is, when the wise men pay him homage. He is forced to flee to Egypt. Even before public recognition, the always paranoid powers of the establishment are on watch, searching him out, seeking a surgical strike to remove him before the public knows. And like a precision bomb in Iraq, Herod takes out an entire preschool. (2:16-18)

Jesus has already gone. The powers are playing catch up. Even when they do catch up, and kill him, God will burst through their defences. God has begun to move. Nothing will stop God; Jesus is rather like his own star, said one of our bible study participants: He is a comet in the heavens, a loose cannon unbeholden to us. God will do what God will do.

I think if I were to choose a nativity image, I would choose Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The colour is appropriate for Matthew's birth narrative. The child is awake and at home in the threatening world which has exhausted his parents. And the Sphinx, a ferocious guardian, knows what it is that he holds. God is with us, vulnerable yet unstoppable. (1:23)

Merson Rest on the Flight from Egypt

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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