“The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise”
So much hidden and revealed in a parenthesis, it seems. “The birth of Jesus Christ,” Matthew tells us, “was on this wise.” He goes on to confront the strange and wondrous nature of Mary being with child but not of Joseph but of the Holy Ghost and provides a wonderful insight into the mindset of gentle Joseph, “a just man,” we are told who does not want “to make her a public example.” A laconic phrase, it hides the harsher realities of the situation of women who were stoned for adultery, a custom that has sadly not entirely disappeared from our world and day. In other words, Joseph is in the dark about what is going on at this point. Yet we see something of his character: rather than expose her he “was minded to put her away privily.” That doesn’t means doing her in!
It is only at this point that he is let in on the plan by the angel of the Lord, who pretty much explains everything to him in a dream. The dream is a kind of ancient world IT, information technology, a means to convey information. The angel’s information to Joseph is very specific, not much in the way of obfuscation or ambiguity. The angel, in a rather lapidary fashion, straightforwardly explains the situation to Joseph: don’t be afraid to take Mary as thy wife; the thing which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost – you have to wonder what on earth he made of that; she shall bring forth a Son; you – meaning Joseph – “shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.” Of all the angelic statements, this one probably made more sense than the others. The idea of Yeshua, Saviour, is rooted in the Jewish Scriptures and looks back to Joshua, Yeshua, and now ahead to Jesus.
Joseph is to call the child Jesus. He is given the naming rights, a significant point, the rights of a father, though Joseph is technically only the step-father. It signals the theme of the Incarnation, namely God’s embrace of our humanity in Jesus Christ and the ways in which he is incorporated into the structures of human life, in this case the family. It establishes identity at the same time as suggesting the unique otherness of Christ.
It is at this point that we find the parenthesis, information embraced by brackets that somehow is extraneous to the situation and yet crucial to the understanding. The parenthetical remark here is an authorial interjection by Matthew, an explanation about the further significance of Christ’s birth by way of reference to prophesy. It is a loaded parenthetical remark. It conveys the idea of the fulfillment of prophesy and enlarges upon the wonder of what for Christians is the Christmas mystery. Matthew quoting Isaiah is explicit: “Behold, a Virgin shall be with Child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” Close brackets. But what a wonder is contained, nay almost crammed into the space of a parenthesis. A virgin and yet a mother, a child and yet a Son, and a name that is different from Yeshua but has a potency all of its own, Emmanuel, even as we are given its interpretation, God with us.
We are obliged, I think, to draw the conclusions. Jesus is Emmanuel. The conditions of God’s being with us, however, do not override or obliterate our human will. There is a proper and respectful engagement between the messengers of God and the recipients, Mary and Joseph.
The Angel announced unto Mary. That was an astounding exchange not least because of the extent of the dialogue but even more because of Mary’s response. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, Be it unto me according to thy word,” she says, even as Joseph, encountering the angel in a dream here, is “raised from sleep,” becomes fully conscious and alert and then acts precisely as the angel of the Lord had bidden him. He takes Mary as wife; Mary brings forth her first-born son; and Joseph calls “his name Jesus.”
They are not mere puppets on a string pulled this way and that. No. The wonder of the scene lies in the degree of human involvement. It gives greater weight to the idea of Jesus as Saviour and the idea of Jesus as Emmanuel. God with us is our Saviour.
Christmas celebrates the wonder of Emmanuel. The wonder is that God is with us in the union of God and Man in Jesus Christ through the willing acquiescence of Mary at the Annunciation and here Joseph at Jesus’ birth. And now? Yes, now, in and through his body the Church, in and through the spiritual fellowship of believers. It is really all about our awakening to the idea of Emmanuel. We are not merely passive participants, we are meant to be fully engaged, heart, mind and soul with God.
We are meant to take a hold of what we behold and be defined by it. Our wills engage with God, the God who is with us and whose life is given to live in us. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us/ because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.” How do we do that? Through our lives of sacrifice and praise, through our lives of service and prayer, by attending to the Word audible and the Word visible, Word and Sacrament, which are all about our incorporation into the life of Christ, the one who is Emmanuel. His being with us challenges us to greater acts of charity and kindness, to sacrifice and service, discovering that it is Christ himself whom we serve in serving one another provided we are willing to will what God wills for us. It is what we are given to seen in the Christmas mystery.
“The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise”
Fr. David Curry
The Sunday after Christmas, 8:00am, 2013