(A sermon for Advent 4A December 19, 2010 Matthew 1:18-25)
When I was a little girl, we had our extended family Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day we opened presents and sometime in the early afternoon, friends would drop by to visit with us. But later in the afternoon, when we were at those ages when kids run out of the ability to be charming after too much Christmas, my dad took us all to the movies. And the bigger the movie, the better! We saw “Scrooge!” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and one year, we sent to see “Oliver.”
It’s burned into my mind’s eye, the image of a little boy framed by a cellar window, wondering “Where is Love?” The world beyond the window looks cold and snowy and forlorn, absolutely unfriendly to a hungry little fellow, a truly bleak midwinter with a grey chill that translates beyond the screen and makes a person shiver.
Where is Love?
Oliver is dreaming of his mother, who, if you know the story, was an unwed mother in disgrace who found her way to the workhouse, a not-very-nice refuge, where she gave birth to a son and lived only long enough to leave evidence of her identity that could be used later in the story. She faced the terrible reality of being young and pregnant all by herself, with the saddest sort of outcome, in the landscape of Victorian England, an outcome people reading the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, would have found sadly ordinary. Where else would a young woman go who had gotten herself into that kind of trouble? She didn’t belong with her family anymore. That would be disgraceful.
Of course, we don’t understand it that way. And when we read that the best choice Joseph felt he could make, the very best, was to dismiss her quietly, we may find ourselves asking, with Oliver, “Where is Love?”
But love had nothing to do with the arrangement between Joseph and Mary’s family, the arrangement that would make them husband and wife. Marriage would have been in the control of Mary’s father, or the patriarch of her family. Her value lay in her youth and her virginity. She was a commodity, someone to be bartered as part of an alliance between families or to improve her family’s position in the community.
Don’t be shocked. All marriages were like this. It was understood that just as you would want to get the best price for your prize cow, you would want to make an economically and socially advantageous marriage for your daughter.
Love had nothing to do with it, especially not romantic love. Biblical stories about people falling in love at first sight usually end very badly. It’s a very modern understanding of marriage that demands romance and happiness. In Joseph’s time, his role was to provide protection and support to a wife in order to get the things society instructed him to want in return: a home and a family. Those were the social and religious rules.
And if anyone understood the rules, Joseph did.
He was, you see, a righteous man.
He was not only righteous, he came from a long line of righteous men. Our reading today began with verse 18 of the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. If you look at the seventeen verses that come before our story, you’ll get a sense of Joseph’s family history. Matthew places him in a long line of people who were faithful to God, including such famous figures as Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon. Joseph was descended from Judah, one of the brothers of the other famous Joseph who wore the coat of many colors. His family tree is about as special as it could possibly be.
Matthew wants us to know that Jesus comes from the mainstream of Judaism. The man who raised Jesus came from a long line of faithful men and women, and he knew the Law, and more than that, he understood its intent. God gave people the Law to help them live together, and we’re talking about more than the Ten Commandments. We’re talking about hundreds of other instructions intended to cover every imaginable possibility in our human experiences and interactions, from what to eat to what to wear to who to marry and how to deal with misbehavior of every sort.
Joseph was a righteous man, and that meant he was a person who knew what the Law demanded of a faithful person, at the most ordinary times and even in the most difficult situations.
And Mary was in the most difficult kind of situation, a young girl of marriageable age, promised to a husband with great connections in the faith community, now pregnant by nobody knows who.Matthew says it so simply, with the sort of confidence we can have only with 20-20 hindsight:
“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.” (Matthew 1:18, NRSV)
That part about the Holy Spirit would not have been so obvious to the people around her. By the time the gospel was being shared, many decades later, it was part of the story everyone knew and accepted. But even in the midst of it, Joseph, as a righteous man, did not want to expose her to public disgrace.
Where is Love?
My daughter, LP, and I wondered this week how well Joseph and Mary might actually have known each other before all this happened. It’s hard for us, in a time when many couples live together before they ever get married, to accommodate our thinking to a culture of arranged marriages. They still exist, but instead of being the common practice, they are now rare and archaic and sound eccentric to us.
When I mentioned it was quite possible they had seen each other only fleetingly, and could hardly have known each other well enough for Joseph to care about Mary personally, Lucy said, “What about love at first sight?”
I suppose that’s possible. We know from ancient poetry and literature that despite the tendency of earlier human cultures to organize people into socially convenient relationships, people have been breaking out due to their affections almost since the world began. So I suppose it’s possible that Joseph saw a sweet face and didn’t have the heart to let Mary be stoned or banished or whatever was the particular practice in their hometown around what would come to be known as the turn of the millennia.
But it’s more likely that another kind of love came into play, a love he had in his heart already, a love constant enough to make him willing to bend the capital “L” Law even before an angel came to him in a dream and asked him to go further still.
Where is Love?
The word never appears in this fragment of scripture. But the kind of feeling that underlies Joseph’s action has to be love. It’s a greater love, a deeper love, an absolutely non-romantic love—sorry, Lucy!
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the man who adopted Jesus could understand this kind of love partially on his own and more fully with the help of an angelic visitor. Joseph knew how to live Love.
When we hanker for the good old days, we need to remember the reality of the rules Joseph broke to embody a righteous love. All those rules and laws had one intention, to make it less complicated for people to love God and one another, to live together in community and to thrive while doing it. But because they were written down by people, because people had a hand in recording and revising and reinterpreting them, the administering of the Law lost the original intentions.
The Law lost the Love.
For people who had no power, for widows and other unmarried women and poor people and children, that loss of Love meant a harsh existence spent trying to stay out of the way and beyond the notice of the men who represented the Law.
Joseph had to know all this. He knew what ought to happen to Mary. He knew what other people would expect. Even before the angel came, he prepared to go beyond the letter of the law to live its spirit. And after his dream, he embraced his young wife-to-be, and her baby, disregarding the effect of such a marriage on his position in the community and foreshadowing the message we received from the child he raised.
Where is Love?
Love is in Joseph’s response to God’s messenger.
Love is in Joseph’s protection of the mother and her child.
Love is in knowing when to ignore the rules in order to follow God’s call in our lives. Love is in giving with no expectation there will be a return. Love is in forgiving even if the other person may not ever appreciate it.
Love is in the child, God-with-us, born on a night long ago, drawing us close again when we wander, reminding us we matter when we feel it’s least likely. There, there is Love. Amen.