Holy Cross Monastery, West Park NY
Br. Adam McCoy, OHC
RCL - Christmas I, Christmas Eve, Friday 24 December 2010
There are a lot of pairs, of sets of two, in the nativity stories. There are two people, Mary and Joseph, obviously. There are two towns: Nazareth and Bethlehem. There are two divine announcements: the archangel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary announcing that she will be with child by the Holy Spirit, and the angel who appears in a dream to Joseph, telling him to name the child Jesus. There are two worlds of hospitality for the traveling couple: the world of ordinary human hospitality which is closed to them on that fateful night, and the world of animal agriculture, which finds room for them. There are two witnesses to the birth of Jesus from the wider world: the wise men from the East and the shepherds recruited by yet another angel, both come to honor the newborn babe. The magis’ encounter with Herod testifies to two worlds of power, one which is hostile to God’s purposes and one which eagerly seeks to cooperate with them. There are two journeys, one to Bethlehem to cooperate with one government’s bureaucratic census and another to Egypt to protect the child from another government’s tyranny. There are two sets of children: Jesus, who is protected, and the little boys of Bethlehem, all of whom two years old and under are killed by Herod’s troops.
And there are, of course two stories of the nativity, one in Matthew, centered on Joseph, and the other in Luke, with Mary as its focus. We often conflate them to produce a single story, which is useful for the Christmas pageant, and also for the créche, where by the time Epiphany comes, both shepherds and magi will stand as witnesses to the Christ child together. Scholars often set them against each other, looking for inconsistencies as proof that the accounts of the birth of Jesus are simply stories. But I think the two are complementary, like a diptych, a double-panel painting. They relate to each other: Each separately is beautiful, but taken together, they suggest something more than either is alone. The structure of a work of art, a story, even a gospel, even two gospels considered together, can tell us a lot. In this case, pairs of things, twos, are significant. We might ask ourselves why the early Christian community chose to represent the birth of Jesus with so many contrasting pairs, beginning with two stories. There may be a message there!
We can’t look at all of our pairs tonight, but we can look at one set, one that I haven’t mentioned yet.
I think there are two points of view, like two sides of our diptych, about Mary and Joseph. The first panel of the diptych carries a theme of simplicity, poverty, humility, social disapproval, exclusion. The second panel represents the theme of daring, of risk, of the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel.
So for our first panel: Neither Mary nor Joseph is a significant person in the worldly sense. Joseph is a workingman, and presumably Mary is from a similar social background. They seem to have little money and few connections, or else they would have been welcome somewhere in Bethlehem. They are content with a place among the animals, which perhaps not everyone might have been. They are perhaps not the poorest of the poor, but they are certainly not far up the ladder. Their temporary shelter is with animals out in the back shed. The first people who find out about the birth are poor shepherds, who do what poor people do because it is all they have to give: they come to visit.
Mary is engaged but not yet married when she hears God’s call to her. She answers and she becomes pregnant, not letting the almost certain social disaster which awaits her deter her. Such women in that society could be stoned for adultery. Joseph’s honor is on the line if he marries an already pregnant girl, but he too answers God’s call and provides a home, a family and legitimacy for Mary and her child. Their situation is tenuous, to say the least. God’s action is in the midst of the humble and troubled of the world, and he has chosen them as his agents.
And our second panel? Mary and Joseph are named for important biblical characters. The name of Mary harks back to Miriam, the sister of Aaron, whose short song celebrating the crossing of Israel over the Red Sea is thought by many to be the oldest text in the Bible: She “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ (Exodus 15:20-21) Think of Mary’s song, the Magnificat:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ (Luke 1:51-55)
Miriam is called a prophet in Exodus. Mary’s song is of a piece with Miriam’s: It is exultant, fierce, even frightening. It rejoices in God’s forceful, irresistible triumph for his people.
Joseph of Nazareth is named for Joseph, son of Jacob, foolish in his youth with his coat of many colors but wise in his old age. Sold into slavery by his brothers (talk about social exclusion!), he lives a life close to God, and through his dreams brings prosperity and even salvation to the Egyptians. He is the great wisdom figure in the scriptures. Like him, Joseph of Nazareth is brought to the point of disgrace and led by God through dreams to a place of wisdom that builds a great future for his people and the wider world.
A name often gives meaning to the person who bears it, particularly in traditional cultures. What might Mary and Joseph have thought of themselves, of their purposes in life, as they considered their namesakes? It is at least worth considering that the nativity stories reflect their actual characters. According to Luke, at Gabriel’s word Mary plunges straight into the unknown, welcoming her newborn child as the one who is to lead Israel in a new exodus. According to Matthew, Joseph accepts God’s explanation of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy and through his wise, generous and paternal actions gives nurture to Israel’s future salvation, and the salvation of more than Israel. Mary and Joseph both incarnate the deepest meaning of the lives they are called to recapitulate. Miriam’s cry of victory becomes Mary’s Magnificat. The first Joseph’s dreams of deliverance and prudent preparation for hard times to come become the second Joseph’s dreams leading to home and family and then another act of deliverance as the family flees for safety into Egypt. Joseph and Mary each represent the purposeful acts of human beings who dare to use their own lives to cooperate with God’s purpose.
So two pictures, side by side: on the one side, the simple peasant couple in trouble; on the other, a seemingly apocalyptic consciousness, steeped in the scriptures and the collective memory and expectation of Israel. Which is it? Can it be both?
And why not? Perhaps your mind has raced ahead. Is not the nativity the bringing together of two different natures, the human and the divine, in the Incarnation? If God can become man, why should not a simple peasant girl be the second Miriam, celebrating a new Exodus? Why should not Joseph of Nazareth recapitulate the prudent wisdom of Joseph son of Jacob, creating a future for his own people and others as well? Perhaps all the pairs are telling us something: Bringing together two to make them more than either. The magi and the shepherds, after all, both arrived at the manger for the same reason: to witness to the one who has reconciled man to God.
The one whose birth we celebrate tonight is very human: a powerful healer, a wise and discerning teacher and prophet, but from the back of the behind of nowhere, despised and rejected, true to his family in so many ways. And he is also the Word of God, the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, who will accomplish the expectations and hopes, not only of Israel, but of all the world. The two are one in Him.