Advent II…

“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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, and 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel,”

Which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

(Matthew 1:18-25)

We don’t hear much from Joseph in the story of Christmas. In fact, the writers of the Gospels give him no speaking lines at all! Yet I think Joseph is the perfect voice for Advent. Joseph’s voice is heard in his actions. I am sure that hearing the words “I’m going to have a baby,” from the woman you are engaged to is a very disturbing experience. That would especially be true in the culture Joseph and Mary lived in. Marriage in that culture wasn’t just a personal activity. It was a family and community activity involving both economic and social consequences. Most marriages were arranged by the parents of the two young people. The marriage was as much a familial, corporate partnership, as social event, which considered the benefit not only for the two future-spouses, for also for the extended families. A good marriage ensured the furtherance of the ancestral line of the man, the economic protection of the woman, and sustainable, close relations between the families. A good marriage promoted peace and security for the village.

When it was decided which family the man’s family wanted to join with, the father of the potential husband or the potential husband himself, approached the father of the potential bride, and negotiated a “bride price” with him. Once the girl’s father accepted the value of the other family’s offer, the bride price was paid, and the two were considered to be betrothed to one another. . Our act of engagement is a similar, symbolic gesture, but doesn’t have nearly the same social and economic commitments associated with it.  Once the couple completed the marital covenant ceremony, the bride’s family gave the couple a bridal dowry, which was some sort of economic gift which helped the new family provide for themselves. The dowry could be anything from a house/shelter, livestock, agricultural property, etc.

Choosing a good family within which to marry also promoted honor, an important social commodity within the culture. The woman, and her family, were responsible to maintain sexual purity before the consummation of the marriage bed…and her purity before the marriage had to be verified by a representative of the community after their first act of sexual intercourse after the wedding ceremony, by getting a piece of bedding cloth which was spotted with blood from the tearing of the woman’s hymen after her husband penetrated her. If this blood could not be found, the entire village knew, and the family of the woman were shamed by the community. Being shamed bore important consequences for the family’s ability to work collaboratively within the political, social, and economic activities of the village.

So, when Mary “was found to be with child” (read pregnant; Matt. 1:18), the consequences affected Joseph’s and Mary’s families, not just personally devastating for Joseph emotionally. In the beginning, all Joseph had to go on about how Mary became pregnant, was her word… her communicated perspective about the reality of her experience. Mary’s word conflicted with the way Joseph experience how life worked, and what he would have considered to be the truth about Mary. Since what she said got her pregnant, and what he “knew” got her pregnant were completely different, he was faced with finding a righteous way through the dissonance. What Joseph chose, tells us something about Joseph: What he thought about Mary, the baby, and his interpretation of “righteous” action on his part.

To get a better understanding about these three, we need to know something about the options open to him, and the way the legal system worked in Nazareth. At the time of this story, Nazareth was a small Jewish settlement estimated to have a population of between 400-500 people in Galilee. Nazareth was mainly an agrarian culture close to the city of Sepphoris, which had been constructed by Herod and became the political center of Galilee in which Herod’s son, Antipas, lived and ruled under the oversight and empowerment of Rome. Since Nazareth was so small and almost totally Jewish, I suspect most legal proceedings that weren’t related to the Roman occupation would have taken place in the manner all legal conflicts were handled traditionally: at the city gate.

When two members of the community had a conflict, or when one person had a legal grievance with another, the one prosecuting the grievance would go to the city gate, where the elders of the community gathered to discuss community issues and make community decisions. The elders would have been male, heads of their households, and they would have met at dawn at the city gate before going to work in the fields or their vocations. The aggrieved person would come to the gate at dawn, and gather a group of elders to hear his grievance. When the grievance was heard, the entire group of elders needed to agree upon the outcome of the issue. Enforcement wasn’t conducted by physical force, but essentially through community pressure using the social constructs of honor and shame, and through economically isolating the offender until the issue was resolved by the offender.

Joseph could have approached the city gate one morning, found a quorum of elders…all men…and revealed publically that Mary was pregnant, the child wasn’t his, end their betrothal, and demand that the bridal price be returned to his family. In so doing, he would “expose her to public disgrace,” shame her father and mother by exposing their inadequacy to control the sexual behavior of their daughter, influence other villagers to distrust Mary’s family, and potentially remove Mary’s and the baby’s economic support especially if her family shunned her and kicked her out of the family in an attempt to remove the shame of the family. Mary would then be completely on her own with limited ways to provide for herself and the child.

By doing all of this, Joseph could have maintained his culture’s perspective of public righteousness, which is how Matthew describes him. (1:19) However, Joseph chose a different path. He was going to “dismiss her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). There are no more specifics about his plan, but it seems that he was considerate of the predicament which Mary, her family, and the child were in. Joseph listened to Mary’s experience, then acted in compassion rather than indignant, self-righteous pride. His patience…his choice to wait before acting…reveals an attitude that seeks to be redemptive in responding to other people. These are Advent practices…

Next, as he was sleeping, Joseph has a dream in which “an angel of the Lord” appears to him and essentially repeats Mary’s story, and directs him to name the child Jesus…which means  “God delivers”– …”for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21) The angel goes on to explain that Mary’s condition has been foretold by the prophet Isaiah and that the child would be Immanuel…God with us. Through the dream, Joseph finds God’s presence in the dissonance of his life. He then acts obediently to the angel’s message.

This is, I think, the strongest message Joseph has to tell us, and why he is important to people in the midst of Advent waiting. In our waiting, watching, and wandering, we can become overwhelmed by the circumstances in our world. Recently, it seems that every tragic event we learn about is suddenly interrupted by news of another one. Like wave upon wave meeting the shore from the stormy sea, each event crashes in on us before the regular news cycle of the previous one can play itself out. We forget about one tragedy, because it is pre-empted by news of yet another one. What we experience is a worldwide cacophony of pain, injustice, tragedy, and danger that challenges our ability to perceive each event, let alone respond intelligently or act in any other way than through fear and anger.

Advent invites us to remember what the birth of the Child means: God is with us!

Advent invites me…

…to realize I need a Savior…

…to Search for the signs of God’s presence, here and now…

…to Savor the beauty of the world in spite of its tumult…

…to Stay by the manger in worship rather than implode in fear…

…to Start on the journey God leads…


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