Stacks Image 5401
by: Heather Nemec
Advent four: Love

Isaiah 7:10-16
Matthew 1:18-25

December 20, 2015

Advent 4 Year A

Again, I’m reading,
The First Christmas, What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth,” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. They begin by saying that there are only birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and each gospel tells a very different story. Borg and Croosan say that we might treat these birth narratives as parable. Hence, we then have the freedom to look for meaning in the birth story the same way we look for meaning in the parables. Parables matter and they are truthful even though they are not factual. For those who have ears to hear they are full of truth.

However, the parabolic approach needs to be combined with a historical approach. By historical we do not mean factual, even though we recognise that that is one of the meanings people associate with the word in our time. When people ask about a story, “Is that historical?” they mean, “Did that happen? Is that factual?” But that is not what we mean when we are dealing with materials such as the birth narratives. Rather, a historical approach to these stories means setting them in their first century context. A historical approach means, “ancient text in ancient context.” What did these stories mean for the Christian communities that told them near the end of the first century?

Seeing the birth stories in this context allows us to move away from the “fact or fable” conflict marked by endless assertion and counter assertion: “They are factually true.” “No, they’re not,” “Yes they are.” “No they aren’t.” and so it goes.

When their factuality is emphasised the issue becomes, “Do I believe them or not?” Did these events, particularly the spectacular ones, actually happen? The debate is not only fruitless, but a distraction, for it shifts our attention away from the truly important question: what do these stories mean?

If you read Chapter 1 of Matthew, you read the genealogy that tells us Jesus’ family background. Matthew begins by emphasising Jesus’ Hebrew ancestry, son of Abraham and the royal son of David lineage. Within the list of ancestors, the evangelist has unexpectedly inserted the names of five women: not the matriarchs, but he names the following women:
  • Tamar, who posed as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, Judah;
  • Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who betrayed her city to the Hebrews
  • Ruth the Moabite who married Boaz after placing him in a compromising position one night on the threshing room floor
  • Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, who committed adultery with David;
  • and then he lists Mary who became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, but was betrothed to him in a legally binding relationship.

I have laid this genealogy out because it gives us insight to the history that the people lived with; and it comes as no surprise that we have this story placed here. Matthew links Mary to these stories, to these ancestral women for a reason. It’s the same as how we write family histories and if we think that fact and fiction aren’t blended, then think again. He does it because it makes the story ring with familiarity, with clarity perhaps and it makes the story understandable. It’s
midrash. The story told over and over so it fits with the time.

Let’s look at what was happening in the first century because I think we fall into a trap when we read this passage about Joseph and Mary, and even now, we overlay our 21st century morals on the story. We assume there was a prohibition against sex before marriage, but there wasn’t. Mary was betrothed to Joseph.

In ancient Jewish culture, that meant she was effectively his wife already, whether there had been a marriage ceremony or not, so the community would not have been outraged, or even surprised that Mary was pregnant - because that was the only way you could tell if she was fertile - and once you had those facts straight then you followed through with the marriage. Remember, this is the first century, and having a family was the first priority. The only person who is upset about this is Joseph, because he knows he hasn’t slept with her. Nobody else knows that, so she hasn’t been shamed. The only way she would be in danger from the community is if Joseph announced that he is not the father. Mary has no choice in how the story gets told. Her role is clear. So, really this story is all about Joseph and the choice he has to make. Does he tell or doesn’t he?

Once again when you know the history, this story fits within the context - and that is what Matthew was counting on - only he has to make it better than all the other stories, because now the future of Christianity is at stake. Matthew was writing these 50 - 60 years after the death of Jesus. If he doesn’t make this story better than all the others, then Christianity doesn’t have a chance. The story is reminiscent of Moses’ birth and Samuel’s birth to Hannah. And it works, right?

The story makes sense to the people - it grows out of their history, their culture and they can place it right up there with other stories from their past. They are love stories.

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and we have the opportunity to think about that wonderful thing called love. I like to think that it is possible that Joseph loved Mary and wanted to continue the relationship no matter what was happening and in the midst of that he would have had many thoughts as to how to proceed; he was probably torn as to what to do. Perhaps, that’s often what love does to us. Remember it’s a dream where he receives the message to go ahead and trust Mary - how much stock do you put in dreams? Every decision that Joseph makes is based on his dreams.

Let’s just say he did love her, and he was willing to go along with the dream, and with community hopes and expectations. We have probably all been there - we have all been madly in love, infatuated to the point where we have been blind to some amazing facts when surrounded by this thing called love.

However, this thing called love covers a lot of ground and it is all encompassing. I am reading a book by Margaret Wheatly,
Turning to One Another,” and she talks about turning to one another and finding a new way for the future - in this book she tells this story: The story takes place on Robben Island, the South African prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned for more than twenty-five years because of their struggle to end apartheid. Their story stands out as one of triumph of the human spirit over torture and severe oppression. Only because they must have believed with every fibre of their being could they have survived to tell this story.

She writes:
We were standing in a long narrow room that had been used as a prison cell for dozens of freedom fighters. The prisoners lived in close quarters in this barren room - there were no cots or furniture, just cement walls, and floors, with narrow windows near the ceiling. I stood their listening to our guide’s narration. He had been a prisoner in this very room. The cold came up through the floor into our feet as we gazed around the lifeless cell. We stared through the bars of the door as he described the constant threats, and the capricious brutality they had suffered. Then he paused and gazed down the length of the room. Speaking very quietly, he said: Sometimes, to pass the time here, we taught each other ballroom dancing.
Margaret Wheatly
I have never forgotten that image, of demoralised and weary men teaching each other to dance in the cold silence of a long prison cell. Only the human spirit is capable of such dancing. Only the spirit that is in touch with love for humankind is capable of such dancing. Only Joseph, through the power of a dream could somehow or another, trust that he might make the right decision.

Love is that illusive force that dominates our lives, whether it is love for humankind in its many forms, or the love we feel for our partners and for our families. Or the sacrifices we make in the name of love. Many say that we live in a broken world, absent of love. Perhaps, but I hope not.

Wheatley says that we have to give up our idea that rugged individualism works and simply learn to talk to one another. She says because we have been taught to only care about ourselves we have stopped talking to one another in ways that really matter. We have stopped teaching one another to dance.

She writes,
We don’t set out to save the world; we simply set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts
Margaret Wheatly
I suppose that is how Mary and Joseph felt - individualism wouldn’t have taken over yet and they probably talked to one another. I can imagine Mary in the middle of the night saying, I didn’t sign up for this. Or why me, or my mother is going to kill me when she finds out about this.

What did Mary know about messages from God, what did she know about men when she found herself with child, what did she know about babies barely out of childhood herself, Mary the God-chosen girl - what did you know about the journey you would soon embark upon, a journey that would lead to the stable and that journey would set you up for a life time of argument.

Did you listen more carefully than most of us? Could it be that you had been waiting, listening for the footsteps of an angel? Perhaps there are messages for us if we have the faith to listen.

Jan Richardson in her Advent book called,
Night Visions, writes this:
She told me that virgin means a woman unto herself, a whole woman, a soul mother. What a shift from thinking that a virgin is what you are until you are made complete by a man. They still argue, Mary, about whether you were a virgin. Maybe it’s never bothered me because something deep inside me knew the truth: that you were whole, that you were a woman onto yourself; that you chose freely, that you were a soul mother, a spirit catcher, a God bearer even before you consented to open your womb. And so they can dicker over the question until the second coming, but what I really want to know is, do we want to be whole? Do we want to be healed? Because that is what Advent is asking us: Are we ready to be born?
Jan Richardson
This Advent season are we ready to love, to be hopeful, to spread peace and joy, and are we ready to search out life at its fullest, do we trust in the future and in the magic of dreams like - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary?

Do we understand what it would mean to be ball-room dancers in a cold prison cell?

This story from Matthew is an invitation to you – an invitation to write your story. How will you tell it? Who have you loved? Do you listen to your dreams? What dreams do you still dream? What risks are you willing to take in the name of Love?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood