post

A Public Scandal for a Merry Christmas

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah,” Matthew says, “took place in this way.”

Here’s the short version: public scandal.

Sacred texts, their formal language and the ritual surrounding their proclamation can easily tidy up the scandalous bits, but traces of the mess still remain: a teenage girl; an unexpected pregnancy; her betrothed is not the father.

This is a human dilemma that has been told for millennia, of course, but this week before Christmas we’re invited to consider how that story shapes our worship of a God who comes among us with scandal.

“St. Joseph,” Gracie Morbtizer

Yesterday, many church-goers heard about God doing this with help from Joseph—a carpenter, a manual laborer, a good-old-boy, who is also tender and kind-hearted. His betrothal to his beloved Mary was interrupted with news of her pregnancy.

So Joseph had some difficult decisions to make, especially in that devout, religiously observant community. Even this short little cameo of Joseph that Matthew gives us (1:18-25) is quite moving: Joseph didn’t want to expose Mary to public ridicule or shaming, even though had every right to do so.

But this good and righteous man, as Matthew describes him, decided instead to quietly break off the engagement without any fuss, no public outcry, and just move on with their lives.

That alone would make this a gracious story. But then an angel appears to him in a dream. “Just marry her,” the angel says. “Just get married to the pregnant girl.” And that’s exactly what this dear man does.

So let’s note this carefully: what began as an unconventional and peculiar family became what we now call The Holy Family—not just “a” holy family but The Holy Family. The prototype of all familial holiness emerges from scandal!

This is truly worthy of our attention: the unusual, the strange, and uncomfortable becomes the location of sanctity, of holiness, of the very presence of God.

It has been occurring to me this year that the liturgical season of Advent can so often seem so peculiar in part because the God this season presents to us doesn’t behave in the way deities generally should. This morning confirms it: God shows up in unconventional families because God is unconventional.

Yes, some of our sacred texts carry hints of thunderbolts and dazzling images of heavenly glory, but mostly what we see in this season is a tender-hearted God, a God whose heart breaks with compassion, a God whose compassion makes God vulnerable to the whims and fancies and even violence of human history.

Gods are not supposed to act like that (go back and read some Greek mythology to see what proper gods actually do and think). The God of the Bible is actually a little embarrassing—if we can’t have something that looks like the great and powerful Wizard of Oz aren’t we afraid we’ll be stuck with that little man behind the curtain, the humbug pulling all the levers?

I’m guessing Matthew realized how hard all this would be for his readers to grasp, so he gives us a story about a tender-hearted carpenter to help us imagine a tender-hearted God.

“Holy Family,” Janet McKenzie

This God doesn’t fix a scandalous situation, as if it were broken, but rather embraces it, owns it, and enters the world in a brand new way because of it.

Both Isaiah (whom many of us also read in church yesterday) and Matthew give us a name for this God: Immanuel, which means God with us.

Here we need to pause and ask, exactly who is this “us”? Biblical writers like Isaiah and Matthew were persistent in noting that God shows up especially among the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed; God stands especially with the orphan, the widow, and the alien stranger.

The religiously pious and socially privileged people of Isaiah’s day, just like the ones in Matthew’s, found this kind of God troubling, even offensive. Surely God cares about the standards of respectable society, about following the rules, about working hard and associating with proper people—just like a proper God would.

Matthew begs to differ; indeed, he insists otherwise by beginning his account of the Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, like a proper Messiah ought to have.

But there’s really nothing “proper” about that family tree, at least not for the religiously pious and socially privileged readers.

Matthew includes 42 men and four women in the genealogy of Jesus. That seems wildly unbalanced, except that ancient genealogies ordinarily include only men, so it’s highly unusual to have any women at all in such a list.

But wait! There’s more! These aren’t just any women. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Here’s a brief reminder of who they were:

Tamar tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her so that she could secure her place in the family after her husband dies. Rahab owned a brothel in Jericho—she was a prostitute—and helped ancient Israel conquer that city. Ruth was a Moabite, a people forbidden by divine law even to assemble with Israelites because they had mistreated God’s people in the wilderness. And let’s not forget about Bathsheba. King David had her husband Uriah killed so that he could have sex with her; one of their children was King Solomon.

Of course Joseph embraces the scandal of a pregnant fiancée—the very genealogy of the child Mary was carrying was peppered with scandal!

Now, why in the world (literally) are we confronted with all this just one week before Christmas?

If God shows up—as biblical writers insist—if God usually shows up with the alien, among the orphans, and beside the widows; if we can most reliably find God knitting families together with brothel owners and unmarried pregnant teenagers, then it really doesn’t matter whether we measure up to the standards of respectable society.

Personally, I find that liberating and life-giving. Even more pointedly, I need to realize nearly every day that if I’m spending my time and energy worrying about meeting those respectable standards, I could very well miss what Joseph’s wife said about God. We call that song from Mary The Magnificat, and in it she declares that God has cast down the mighty and lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away, empty.

I’m convinced Mary was inspired to sing that song, at least in part, because Joseph listened to his better angel, he did the scandalous thing and married her. In doing so he became the guardian and protector of God’s Word Incarnate.

Somehow all of this needs to be a Christmas card. I mean this: what kind of sanctified scandal is God calling us to become for the sake of life?

And that is a question worthy of Christmas.

“The Angel Visits St. Joseph,” Mike Moyers