By Mandi Hecht, a recent DMin graduate of Northern Seminary.
You know that Christmas song you sing? Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright? Well, one thing I’ll tell you, all was not calm, and it wasn’t very bright either. Well, by the time we got to the actual birth part of it, to the manger and all that stuff, things were getting better. But that’s not to say that they were not difficult. In fact, the whole story of Jesus being born was far messier, far more difficult, far more, well, how can I say it? Far more human than you can probably tell from the songs that you sing. Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes? Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie? I can tell you, that was not MY experience of that night. That first Christmas night was crazy – the travel, the chaos of trying to find somewhere for Mary to have this baby, she was in pain, exhausted, worried; and I was doing my best just to keep up, to do what I could to ease this situation, to find her, to find us, a place to even rest long enough to birth this baby that was making his way into the world.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. I want to take you back to another night, to tell the story of a far more difficult night that I spent a few months before the whole Christmas scene took over. It was the most difficult night of my life. It was the day I found out that Mary was going to have a baby.
You see, I’m a practical kind of guy. I bear the name of one of the great leaders that came out of our people, one of the characters in the stories that I heard from my parent’s lips from the time I was small – the story of Joseph, who led a difficult life, but ends up saving his entire family, and in fact, the whole world. I come from a long line of people who are God’s people – and they liked to tell stories about our great-great-grandfathers – people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Boaz, King David, King Solomon, and the like. The message is clear – no matter where we live, no matter what is going on, we follow God – the same God who brought my ancestors out of Egypt; the same God who was with us when we crossed into the promised land; the same God who never gave up on us, even when we were swept away by foreign nations. God is our God, and we are his people.
And, as God’s people, there is a script that we follow, a way that (most of) our lives go. We grow up in our parent’s household. And they teach us what they know about God and religion and the like. They take us to the temple and they show us how to worship God properly. They teach us things like the Ten Commandments, and the law that we are all supposed to follow, to show the world that we are really God’s people. We learn religion from our parents, and we learn a trade from our parents, usually from our father. And so it was with me. My life was following along as it should – unfolding as it did for most boys my age. And the time had come, I was beginning to be grown up enough that my parents had arranged a marriage for me. This was, again, according to plan. I had met the woman that I was going to marry, we grew up in the same village, our parents knew each other, and it seemed natural to everyone that I would be promised in marriage to Mary, when we were old enough. And, that is just what happened. Mary and I were betrothed – we were engaged, as you would probably say it, we were pledged to be married. But, keep in mind, this stage of a relationship for us was far more binding than your idea of being engaged. In one sense, we were already legally married, the betrothal contract was binding. All that had to happen was for another ceremony that would finalize the marriage, and we would move in together. Mary was still living with her family, because we were betrothed; but if something had happened to me and I had passed away during that time, Mary would have been considered a widow – because she was already, in a sense, married. To me. If there was anyone else for her (yes, mostly for her, because that is the way the world worked), then we couldn’t just “break up” – we would have to be legally divorced. Which, as you probably know, factors into this story more than a little bit.
Life was going along as it should. I was an ordinary guy, with a job and a life. I loved God and I worshipped as I had been taught. And it was an exciting time for me because I was also preparing for my wedding day; I was setting up a room in my father’s household where me and my wife could live together and start a family in the very near future. Life was humming along as it should. It was not extraordinary, in fact, it was very ordinary. But it was good. And I was happy.
That was until, one day while I was at work, one of Mary’s brothers came to speak to me. He asked me if I could come to their home after work that day. I could tell from the way he was talking, from how he looked and from his mannerisms, that something wasn’t quite right. I asked him if everything was OK, and he just looked at me, not really knowing what to say. I asked him if Mary was OK, if she was hurt or sick; and he shook his head, but he wouldn’t say anything more about what was going on. “Just come, please,” he told me. I agreed.
When I got to her house, it was abuzz, and not in a good way either. Mary was sitting in a corner of the room, but there were lots of people all around, and I couldn’t get a good look at her. Her father came forward, and his head was bowed.
“It seems that your betrothed, Mary, is…she’s…with child.”
You could have heard a pin drop. My chin nearly hit the floor. Mary…pregnant…?
“What…how…when…” I stammered. I couldn’t get the words out. But I could feel the blood beginning to rush to my head. MY betrothed? With child? But, that was impossible…unless…
When I came out of that first furious rush of thoughts, I could hear her father was talking. He seemed to think that I might have had something to do with her state. I shook my head furiously. I denied all the allegations. I had not touched Mary, not in THAT way. We had hardly ever even been alone in the same room! Which was perfectly normal for law-abiding Jewish people such as myself and Mary (at least, I thought that described Mary…but now I wasn’t so sure).
Mary’s father seemed to deflate when I denied what he was accusing me of. Sure, if I were involved in this, I would have been in big trouble – we both would have. But, if I had nothing to do with it, then…then someone else was involved. Now, it wasn’t WE who would be in trouble. It was…it was only her. And her father knew it.
“We’ll await your decision,” he said, sounding sheepish and small, as I left the room, blood still pounding in my ears. I couldn’t believe this was happening. To me of all people. I was a good person, a solid man, someone who could provide. Someone who loved God and followed God’s law. I always had been. A rule-follower. The proverbial nice guy. And look how far that had gotten me!
I had thought better of Mary too. Sure, I was still getting to know her (I would spend the rest of my life getting to know her), but nothing that I had seen when we were kids, or in the interactions we had had since we had become betrothed, led me to believe that she was anything other than I was; that she was anything other than a regular girl, who was ready to start a regular life; who would make a good wife. Her family was an upstanding family; although we all have crazy aunts and skeletons in our closets, there was not really even any warning signs, anything to suggest that she might act out in this way.
I was just about to leave the courtyard of Mary’s household, when I heard a small voice behind me call my name. I almost didn’t hear it at all, it was so tentative. “Joseph…”
I turned and saw her there. Mary, my betrothed. Somehow, she’d managed to step away from that crazy room with all of her brothers, her father, even a few uncles, who had been there to confront me with the news of her pregnancy. I saw that she was holding it together, but barely. I could hardly bear to look at her, but she looked me right in the eye.
“It’s not what you think.”
“You’re not pregnant?” I asked.
“No…I am. But what is conceived in me was conceived…by the Holy Spirit. I can hardly explain it myself. I got a visit from an angel and…”
I couldn’t listen to another word. I shook my head. “You really expect me to believe that?” I asked her.
“I don’t know what I expect you to believe,” she replied, her voice getting stronger, like she had nothing to hide. But even she knew that this sounded unbelievable. “But its what happened. It’s the truth… the angel said, “you will conceive, and you will have a son… and I said I didn’t think that was possible since I’m a virgin, and the angel said, “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God.” And that’s what happened. I…”
But I couldn’t listen to any more of this. She seemed genuine, but did she really expect me to believe this crazy story? Was it worse if she was lying to me, or if she was totally off her rocker? But either way, she’d admitted what her family had told me. She was pregnant. And we both knew that I was not the father. And now I had to decide what it is that I was going to do about it.
I walked that night. I walked and I walked and I walked, and while I walked, I prayed. I prayed the anguished words of Psalm 130: Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears by attentive to my cry for mercy! I was trying to decide what exactly I could do, what was the right thing to do in a situation that was so very wrong? A man in my position has rights. I had been wronged, my wife-to-be had committed adultery. Any way you look at it, she had committed adultery.
As a man who was wronged, I could insist on my full rights. I could charge Mary as an adulteress, and that label would follow her. Her life would be hard with our broken engagement, one divorce already; but it would be much harder if people knew that she had committed adultery, if she had been charged as an adulteress (and what judge would not find her guilty, given her “condition?”).
There was another option, though. This option was not to insist on my full rights. I could do this thing, but do it much more quietly. I didn’t have to charge her as adulteress, I could simply divorce her and let her go about her life.
As I wandered around that night, my legs walking aimlessly as my mind raced through solution after solution, trying to solve this problem that had been thrust upon me, I didn’t feel that either option was good. Either way, I would have to divorce Mary. Even if I choose the more merciful option, there would be consequences for Mary. If we were divorced, things would go badly for her. I was sure that her family would probably look after her, but if they decided not to (for she had brought shame on them too, not just herself), then she would be destitute. I tried not to think about that too much. I cared for Mary, of course I did. But I loved God more. And it was God’s own law that said that adultery was forbidden, and that if someone did commit adultery, then they needed to be punished. My hands were tied. And, honestly, it was Mary herself who tied them. I was someone who knew the law that God had given us. I was someone who followed the rules. And the rules were this: no matter what happened, I could not be Mary’s husband. I had to divorce her, to put her away. I tried not to picture what might happen to Mary if I did that. But, I am a practical guy, a guy who loves God’s law. And so, I could see no other way out in this situation.
I fell into bed, exhausted. I tossed and turned, and I didn’t think that I would get to sleep at all, but at some point, I must have fallen asleep. Because I had the most vivid dream.
Now, I mentioned that my namesake was Joseph, from our stories of old. And this Joseph, from these stories, was quite a dreamer. Not me, however. I am not the kind of guy who has his head in the clouds. I am a practical guy who does what has to be done. But, that night, the worst night of my life, I had a dream (and, by the time my story is finished as Matthew tells it, I would have no fewer than four dreams!)
But that night in particular, God spoke to me through a dream. In this dream, an angel came to me. Probably not the kind you are picturing, with a harp, chubby cheeks, little wings. The angels in our stories are big burly guys, they are warriors who fly. And this angel that came to me in my dream was as big and intimidating as you might expect. And he told me that phrase that gets echoed all throughout this little story of how this particular baby was born – “don’t be afraid.” That’s what the angel said to me. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.” Don’t be afraid.
What would cause me to be afraid? Well, if I did as the angel said, and took Mary home as my wife, then there would be things to fear. I would be throwing my lot in with hers. If her reputation was sullied, mine would be sullied too because of this predicament – she had been unfaithful (at least, that is what everyone would assume) and I married her anyway. I would be going against God’s law, the very one God sets out in our Holy Scriptures, which I had been taught since I was a boy. I would be taking responsibility for all this, and not only that, but a child that was not mine by blood. If I were to take Mary as my wife, we would be in a tough situation. Mary herself was already there – no matter what I decided to do, she was in a difficult situation, there was more innuendo about her, there was more gossip directed at her. She definitely had the harder part of this. If I were to do as the angel had said, then I would be joining her in her difficult situation. I was supposed to believe that God wanted me to do this, to enter this situation, to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mary, and to take in her baby – because this is the way that God wanted His Son to come into the world.
The angel said that the reason that my world as I knew it was ending, was tottering around me, was because this was God’s plan. Do not be afraid.
If I did what I had resolved to do, if I divorced Mary quietly, I had nothing to be afraid of. Not really. Since I had not fathered this child, my reputation was not on the line. My family name was not besmirched. The looks people might give me on the street would only be ones of pity (poor Joseph, did you hear what his betrothed DID). But that wasn’t that bad. My family could find me another match, and my life would go on as it had done. It was only Mary who would suffer these consequences, should I do what I resolved to do. The angel asked me to change my mind about what I was supposed to do. It would be a huge risk. It would take courage. Do not be afraid.
I could hear the reactions of my family members, my friends, folks who were hardliners on God’s laws, saying I should have thrown the book at Mary, that I should have made an example of her, that I should have prosecuted her to the fullest extent of the law, as was my right. But I had a visitor from heaven who told me to do the opposite. The dream called me to do something more demanding than that, more radical, than just divorcing Mary in the most merciful way possible. The dream called me to embrace Mary’s pregnancy, the baby that was growing inside of her, not only as my own child, but to agree that what was conceived in her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. To take Mary as my wife calls me, among other things, to follow God by not following the law that God gave us. I was called to do the right thing in a situation that was totally, entirely, wrong. Try to wrap your mind around that one!
I said earlier that I cared for Mary, but that I loved God more. And that remained true for the rest of my life, which, admittedly, didn’t last as long as I might have liked it to. I never saw Mary’s…our…baby grow up. I never saw the fullness of what he would become, of who he would become, of how he would fulfill what the angel had spoken to me, that this baby would save the people from their sins. Now with my earthly eyes, anyway. I’d like to tell you that I’d believed Mary’s tale when she told me, but that is not quite true. It took the intervention of an angel from heaven for me to change my mind (and that is probably the most miraculous thing about my story…that I actually changed my mind!); but I did. When I awoke from my dream, I surrendered to what the angel had told me. “Not my will, but yours be done,” I said. And then I followed through. I joined in. I took Mary as my wife. I claimed the baby growing in her as my own. I named him Jesus, just as the angel told me I should. And, in so doing, I joined in, not only on this Christmas story, but in this new work that God is doing, transforming our world from the old to the new, through the baby that was conceived in Mary’s womb.
One person wrote the following about the story that I am now a part of, saying: The birth of Jesus is a birth of a new world, even as the old one is tottering around us.
That is certainly true of me. When I heard about Mary being pregnant, that represented the crashing of my world, the end of my dreams, the end of my chance at a normal life. They say that disappointment can be described as “…what happens to our plans when life gets in the way.” Life got in the way for me, to be certain. My plans for how life should go, how this thing should work, of what being faithful looked like, was all thrown out the window. My world was tottering around me; and this baby, Jesus, was born into that chaos, that crashing of my world. But he also represented the promise that, even if my world was forever changed, God would be with me. With us. No matter what. No matter what people said about us, or how many tongues were wagging. No matter if people looked down on me for joining with, standing with, Mary through this tough time. No matter if people thought that I was not following God when I was doing exactly what God told me to do.
This commentator continues: Matthew’s text is not just about Jesus’ first birthday, but a new birthday for the world, which is in the midst of its own birth pants, receiving the startling promise of divine solidarity to see it through the crowning of a new genesis, a new creation. Even if your world is crumbling about your ears, when Jesus was born, this was a birthday for the entire world.
Interestingly, at least to me, there is a little word that gets tossed into my story. When Matthew wrote this down, he said that I was a “righteous” man. This might get us to look at what exactly that word, righteous, means. In your world, it often has negative associations, like you call someone “self-righteous”, and it doesn’t mean anything good. Usually it is associated with keeping the rules, with doing what is laid out in the law. But in this story, it says that I was righteous – only I didn’t keep the law in this story – I went against it! God asked me to accept this unconventional – no, I’m going to go ahead and call it “messy” – this messy situation, that my betrothed was pregnant, and not by me. And not only to accept that, but to believe that THIS was the way God wanted it all along. THIS is the way that God wanted to show that he was with us! THIS is such a strange way to save the world! Perhaps you are in a situation like that in your life. A situation that seems so strange, so, well, human and way too messy, that you are certain that God could never work in that situation. That God could never be with you through that situation. Where in your life, in your history, in the lives of your family or your loved ones, where you have to simply try to decide to the best you can in a difficult situation? Can you believe that God is with you, even where you are? Even where life is messy? Even where you wish things were different? Even when you have to do the right thing in a situation that just seems so wrong?
When God sent his angel, God was asking me to risk becoming disobedient in the eyes of the world – becoming an outcast to family and community…- even becoming someone that others believe is sinful; and taking on suffering – all for the sake of being obedient to God’s call, to God’s instruction, in my life. When law and righteousness collide, how deep do God’s promises go? Because, as you know, righteousness and law do not collide only in my story, but once again, decisively, in the story of my son, in the story of Jesus; when that issue is decided once and for all on the cross.
And so, I was privileged to enter God’s story, to be a part of the birthday that would rock the entire world. God did not choose a fairy-tale prince and princess to be the mother and father of his Son, instead, he worked through average, everyday, ordinary, REAL people, with real challenges. When I first heard the news, I had had to work through my own doubts and questions before I got to “yes” (it seems that Mary got there much faster than I did…); I ended up doing the thing that God asked of me, but it wasn’t until I received that visit from the angel that I even had the courage to think about doing something like that. After all, I’m a practical guy. It was not easy, deciding to do the right thing in a situation that seemed so wrong. But, I believed what God told me. And, even though it was hard for me to understand, I believed God, and I said, “not my will, but yours, Lord.” And, so I found out the truth – that God really is with us – not with us as we know we should be, or as we are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be someday, but here with us, today, right now. In whatever mess that we find ourselves in at this very moment. God is with us. And God is with us as we are. And, because I was obedient to God’s word to me, I got to share in this remarkable story – the story of the savior of the entire world!