The Gospel reading for our Bible study this morning (Matthew 1: 18-25) is the Gospel reading for Sunday week [18 December 2016], the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The full set of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A) is: Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25.
Those readings are about choices, about obedience to God’s plans, and about the fulfilment of God’s plans for all nations. These readings bring us into the last week of Advent.
Matthew 1: 18-25
18 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἡ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. 19 Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν. 20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ' ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου: 21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. 22 Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,
23 Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν,
καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ,
ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ' ἡμῶν ὁ θεός. 24 ἐγερθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῷ ὁ ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ: 25 καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Introduction: the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Christmas is uopn us, the last of the purple candles on the Advent Wreath, the one representing the Virgin Mary, is lit in this week. And the Virgin Mary is likely to be the heroic figure in most of the sermons focusing on the Gospel reading.
These Sunday readings are about choices, about obedience to God’s plans, and about the fulfilment of God’s plans for all nations. They bring us into the last week of Advent. Christmas is upon us, the last of the purple candles on the Advent Wreath, the one representing the Virgin Mary, is lit in this week. And the Virgin Mary is likely to be the heroic figure in most of the sermons focusing on the Gospel reading.
Those sermons are likely to talk about the Virgin Mary and her obedience, Mary’s ‘Yes.’ And Saint Joseph is likely to be pushed to the side of the stage. He says ‘Yes”’ too, but he says it silently; he has no scripted lines; he has no dramatic part or role; he is mute; but he is obedient. And, like Joseph, his namesake in the Old Testament who is named in the psalm (Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19), he too is dreamer of dreams and a doer of deeds.
Saint Matthew’s nativity story lacks the romantic imagery of Saint Luke’s account, whose heady mixture of heavenly angels with earthy shepherds is missing here. Instead, the hope of all the earth takes shape under the sign of arrangements being made for a betrothal that is apparently violated. The gifts of God’s grace and the promise of Go’s reign are hidden, are to be searched for and to be found in the midst of what appears be a very tawdry story.
I imagine the Virgin Mary may have been a mere teenager at the time, just 14 or 15. And, like so many other teenage brides, she turns up for her wedding – pregnant! Saint Joseph knows he could not possibly be the father. He decides to do the right thing and take and quietly drop out of the arrangement.
If Saint Joseph goes ahead, then this child is going to be known in his family, among his neighbours, perhaps by everyone who needs to know, as illegitimate for the rest of his life. His critics indelicately remind him of this in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself’ (John 8: 41). The original Greek (πορνείας οὐ γεγεννήμεθα) is more direct, crude and blunt: they taunt him that they were not conceived through illicit intercourse.
These fears and sneers, those social judgments and wagging fingers, must have been running rapidly through Joseph like a nightmare. Yet the angel of Joseph’s dream makes a startling suggestion. He tells him to marry Mary, and then he is to name the child. To take on naming the child means becoming his father. And this suggested not as a nice thing to do, a courteous thing to do, a gallant or gentlemanly sort of thing to do. Joseph is told why: ‘You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (verse 21).
It is not a promise of immediate reward. Saint Joseph is not offered the promise that if he behaves like this he is going to earn some Brownie points towards the forgiveness of his own sins; that God will see him as a nice guy; or even that if he lives long enough, this child may grow up, be apprenticed to him, take over the family business, and act as a future pension plan.
Instead, the promised pay-off is for others as yet unknown. ‘He will save his people from their sins.’ There is a book by Kerstin Mierke and Bridgette Rowland on Irish wedding traditions that takes its title from the shy Irish farmer’s way of proposing: Would you like to be buried with my people? (2007). But if Saint Joseph is not the father of the Child Jesus, he must have wondered what the angel meant by ‘his people’ and ‘their sins.’
But the forgiveness spoken of here is spoken of apocalyptic terms. It is more than the self-acceptance offered in psychotherapy. Instead, it is the declaration of a new future. To be forgiven is to receive a future. Forgiveness breaks the simple link between cause and effect, action and reaction, failure and disaster, rebellion and recrimination.
On the strength of the angel’s claim, the church asserts one of its own: from the beginning, it was always God’s intention that it should happen this way. It is the fulfilment of the ancient prophecy, Matthew declares (verse 22): the hope of all the ages, the beginning of the end of all the old tyrannies, the restoration of everything that is and will be, was always meant to take place in a virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the cross.
That is Advent. It is a time of expectation, repentance and forgiveness. It is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope. It is a time for dreaming dreams, and putting behind us all our nightmares.
The dream in our Gospel reading is the dream of Saint Joseph, not the Virgin Mary’s dream. The Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary only in Saint Luke’s Gospel. Saint Mark and Saint John, for their part, give us no account of the birth of Christ, they have no Christmas narrative. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the angel appears not to Mary, but to Joseph.
In Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 1), as he contemplates suicide, Hamlet begins that most famous of Shakespearian soliloquies, that opening word: ‘To be or not to be …’ And he muses and thinks out loud:
‘… To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil …’
Why do we need sleep? Perhaps, as the Very Revd Samuel G. Candler, Dean of Saint Philip’s Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests in a sermon on this Sunday nine years ago: ‘We need sleep because we need to dream.’
Saint Joseph dreamed something wonderful. God would enter the world; God would be born to his new, young wife, Mary. But to believe this, Saint Joseph had to trust not only his dream, but to trust Mary, to trust the future child, to trust God.
Do you love the people you trust and trust the people you love?
To trust the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph must have truly loved her. But trust in this predicament must have gone beyond trust. Joseph must have truly glimpsed what it is to trust God, to have hope in God, to love God, to have faith in God.
Saint Joseph dreams a dream not of his own salvation, but of the salvation of the world.
Sometimes, like Saint Joseph, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Do you trust that God is working through the people you love? Do you trust that God is working through people you find it difficult not to love but merely to like … working through God’s people for their salvation?
Too often we forget about poor Joseph. Every year, we tend to focus on the story of the Virgin Mary. But this year, Year A, the Lectionary asks us to focus on Saint Joseph. The annunciation occurs not just to Mary, but to Joseph too. And they both say ‘Yes.’
And Saint Joseph says a second Yes too. Later in this Gospel, we read:
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’ (Matthew 2: 13-15).
Saint Joseph listens, God sends a messenger again, Saint Joseph dreams again, and he remains true to God, he answers God’s call.
Saint Joseph has no speaking part; he just has a walk-on part in this drama. But his actions, his obedience to God’s call, speak louder than words.
Yes, God appears over and over again, to men, women, to ‘all sorts and conditions of people.’
But do we trust them?
Can you have faith in someone else?
Can you believe their dreams?
Can you believe the dreams of those you love?
And dream their dreams too?
The French renaissance writer and humanist, François Rabelais (1494-1553), once quoted a monk who told Gargantua: ‘I never sleep really comfortably, except when I am at a sermon, or at my prayers.’ But if people sleep during your sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I hope they too dream of God’s promise of salvation to all his people. For God is among us.
Come, O Come Emmanuel.
As Dean Candler urges in that sermon: ‘Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and Jesus will be born again. Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear. Amen.’
The Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge … the depiction of Saint Joseph was typical for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Man of the House, by Katherine Tynan
Joseph, honoured from Sea to Sea,
This is the name that pleases me,
‘Man of the House.’
I see you rise at dawn and light
The fire and blow it till the flame is bright.
I see you take the pitcher and carry
the deep well-water for Jesus and Mary.
You knead the corn for the bread so fine
gather them grapes from the hanging vine.
There are little feet that are soft and slow
follow you whithersoever you go.
There’s a little face at your workshop door,
a little one sits down on your floor.
Holds his hands for the shaving curled
the soft little hands that made the world.
Mary calls you: the meal is ready;
you swing the Child to your shoulders steady.
I see your quiet smile as you sit
and watch the little Son thrive and eat.
The vine curls by the window space,
the wings of angels cover the face.
Up in the rafters, polished and olden,
There’s a Dove that broods and his wings are golden.
You have kept them through shine and storm,
a staff, a shelter kindly and warm.
Father to Jesus, husband to Mary,
hold up your lilies for Sanctuary!
Joseph, honoured from Sea to Sea
Guard me and mine and my own rooftree.
‘Man of the House.’
God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Post Communion Prayer
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with Year I and Year II MTh students on Wednesday 7 December 2016.