Part of what Advent is, and what Christmas is, is a time of telling stories—most importantly, the two stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and in Luke. Only these two gospels tell the birth story, and if we look at them side by side, we see they tell it quite differently. The two authors have different things to say in these stories. And what’s amazing about literature, including biblical literature, is that we read or hear something different every time we come to a story because we are different. We are evolving and growing in our experience and understanding, and we bring a new ear, a new heart to a story.
I’ve probably heard this Sunday’s lectionary story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18-25) hundreds of times. But what stood out to me this time was the panicked feeling of Joseph’s predicament. We have all been there, in situations where we could either stay with the profound discomfort of a situation or we could abandon and avoid it. In this story, Joseph seems to be a victim of circumstances. He didn’t do anything to get himself there. His unwed beloved is suddenly pregnant—placing her in an incredibly vulnerable, dangerous position—and he was not responsible. When Mary said she didn’t know how she got pregnant, he likely would have doubted her. He was human; even though an angel appeared to reassure and direct him, telling him it was a miraculous pregnancy by which God would be revealed. Surely he struggled with doubt. Yet he decided to do the right thing though it was humiliating.
Some interpreters say Mary could have been stoned to death according to first-century laws, and this may be true. Yet it seems unlikely as a real possibility in the story. Mary and Joseph were from a tiny, familial town in a culture that highly valued family. I don’t think the people of Nazareth who helped raise and nurture Mary as a child, who not only knew and loved her family but in many cases were her family—I don’t think they would have dragged her onto the street to stone her. Most likely, the worst of their punishments—Mary’s punishment if Joseph abandoned her, and the punishment of the couple jointly if they stayed together and raised a baby conceived before their marriage—would have been shame. Likely anyone in their culture reading this story recognized this: That Jesus’ parents would have carried a weight of shame, and possibly for a long time. They would have borne humiliation and public disgust and judgment even if they did the right thing. There is no minimizing this punishment. Living under other people’s judgments and shame is a terrible weight. Sometimes we experience it because of circumstances outside of our control; and sometimes we experience it because we—like all people—have made mistakes or errors of judgment then faced them, even trying to make right what is broken.
I think we all know how this feels: to not run from or deny the difficult things in our lives, but to own up to them or face them and to tell the truth about ourselves (which requires that we first tell the truth to ourselves). This is the right thing to do, but painful. It often brings on the speculations and second-guessing of peers and we wrestle with this demon of shame. For Joseph it had to do with his pregnant betrothed. For us, it might be different. For the deep and inspired relationship we were a part of that crumbled for reasons most people don’t understand; the time we spoke up publicly, or in a close relationship, because something needed to be said, perhaps as a lone voice in a din of denial; the time we made a hard choice to be generous when those on the fringes thought we were foolish or naive.
What stood out to me as I read this Christmas story once again, in the year 2022, is this. The realization that Joseph, and Mary too, had this choice to make, and Matthew’s readers understood it was costly and would be for some time. But as Isaiah wrote in the passage Matthew quotes, Jesus showed us “Emmanuel” or “God is with us.” This concept is an important one to ponder at these times when we feel alone and challenged. Emmanuel: God with us. We can face the hard thing because of this. We can do the hard thing because of this.
Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal