Magazine article The Christian Century

Reflections on the Lectionary

Magazine article The Christian Century

Reflections on the Lectionary

Article excerpt

December 18, Fourth Sunday of Advent Matthew 1:18-25

THERE ARE MULTIPLE Greek words for Greek words for birth that Matthew could use to begin his Gospel and describe the birth of Jesus. The one he uses is genesis. The genealogy that prefaces Matthew's birth story seems as orderly as the first six days of creation. The names are what we expect, all the greatest heroes of Jewish history.

Scratching the surface exposes more complicated truth. Abraham sets aside his oldest son, while Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright. David murders a man to prevent a scandal. The women Matthew includes aren't much better. Tamar plays prostitute; Rahab actually is one. Ruth is a foreigner. Yet all have their place in the new creation of Jesus.

As Joseph enters the story, we are primed to hear of Jesus' genesis in a new kind of way. By the time a direct descendant of Abraham finds his betrothed pregnant with a child not his own, the messiness of family life has been well established.

Mary is "found with child," and I can't help but wonder who found her. Mary's situation must have been known by some, perhaps by all: her parents, the village busybodies, maybe even the local rabbi. Joseph has to do something, but what?

He has no good options. Divorcing Mary quietly might be the just thing to do, but it isn't good. She might not be stoned to death, as Levitical law contends, but without a man to keep her she might well be reduced to begging or forced into prostitution. If instead Joseph marries a seemingly unfaithful woman, he himself is tainted by her sin. And that's not the worst of it. Joseph runs the risk of nurturing an interloper in his own dynasty. In patriarchal terms, Mary's son stands to inherit the birthright of Joseph's own biological child. Joseph is still considering when an angel appears.

The first words out of an angel's mouth are almost always "Do not be afraid." It may be that seeing an angel is frightening, but it seems just as likely that angels encounter people in situations where they are already afraid. Joseph in Matthew's Gospel and Mary in Luke's are no exception. On the cusp of marriage, they find themselves with a pregnancy they didn't seek or expect. The very existence of this child may well threaten their place in their community, their synagogue, and their families. Their own relationship may be broken before it has even begun. In the face of this new beginning, fear seems reasonable.

Yet maybe things aren't as new as they seem. Matthew's genealogy underscores that the more things change, the more they stay the same. …

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