Today we finish a series of Advent reflections that have focused in the Nativity. We have considered how the donkey signifies God’s intention to redeem not just humanity, but all of creation; a creation which sings an on-going song of praise to its Creator. Next, we considered how the shepherds, represent our work and the magi represent our intellect and how this points toward the sacred and holy nature of the work of our hands and our minds. Last week we reflected on the angels whose God-given message is always one of hope and hopefulness. I was reading a devotional this week that highlighted the presence of joy in and around all the angel stories and, if I had a do-over, I might try to think a little bit more about that. But on this final Sunday in Advent we want to focus on Mary and Joseph.
Both were from a small, non-descript town called Nazareth, a Hebrew word that means “branch.” Archeologists suggest that it had a population of about 200 people who lived in pretty close quarters; an area not much larger than the city block our church sits on. There were no secrets in Nazareth, one of many, many close-knit communities that dotted the Galilee region.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph was a descendant of David, tracing his royal ancestry from Solomon on down through a kingly line. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was also a descendant from David’s royal blood, but that her lineage came through Nathan and a priestly line. That Nazareth literally meant “Branch Town” suggests that its inhabitants, known as “Branchites”, may have shared a royal ancestry.
The people of Nazareth were poor peasants, barley able to eek out a living on the sparse bit of land available to them. We are told that Joseph was a “tekton,” the Greek word for “builder.” English translations of the bible going back to 1562 misleadingly employ the word “carpenter”, from which we derive romantic notions of Joseph raising Jesus in a wood shop crafting tables and chairs with a plane and a lathe. More likely Joseph was employed as a stone layer in Sepphoris, Herod’s lavish royal city four miles to the north of Nazareth. Tektons were not well paid, in fact urban slaves enjoyed better living conditions than rural builders. Herod’s massive construction projects in Sepphoris and other locations were funded through taxes that took as much as 1/3 of the tekton’s meager annual income.
These demands and living conditions created a volatile situation. Caesar Augustus had confirmed Herod as “King of the Jews,” but Herod was in fact only half Jewish (through his mother) and had no royal lineage. When he died in 4 BC, about the time when Mary would have been 14, a peasant revolt took place. A person named Ezekias broke into the royal palace at Sepphoris and seized the arms that were stored there. Riots ensued all over the countryside and the Romans acted swiftly and brutally to restore order. As many as 20,000 troops poured into the region, burnt down towns, and executed through crucifixion hundreds and hundreds of people. The trauma that gripped Galilee would have been unimaginable. When order was restored, the Romans set up as king Herod Antipas (the person who would one day have John the Baptist beheaded and to whom Jesus would refuse to speak when He was arrested in Jerusalem).
And so it was that two families in “Branch Town” arranged a marriage between a young girl named Mary and a tekton named Joseph. During the period of betrothal, it comes to be known that Mary is pregnant. In Luke’s telling of the story, the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary God’s plan and, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel, Mary consents to bear a child fathered by the Holy Spirit. Matthew, focusing on Joseph’s side of the story, tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit, but it is not entirely clear that Joseph knows this or understands its implications because he wants to have the marital arrangements quietly dissolved. Persistent rumors throughout the Gospels suggest that many believed Mary to have been impregnated by a Roman soldier and Jesus to be illegitimate.
Luke tells us that the pregnant Mary without Joseph goes to live with her older relative Elizabeth, who at the time is pregnant with John the Baptist. It is perhaps during this time that Joseph has a dream where an angel speaks to him the truth regarding the conception and when Joseph awakes he determines to take Mary into his house as his wife.
Meanwhile, Caesar Augustus decrees a census be taken to impose another round on tax increases and Joseph is forced to take Mary to the town of his birth, Bethlehem. It is there, in a stable, that Jesus is born. Forty days later they go to the Temple to make the appropriate offering for a first-born son, but are too poor to afford the standard sacrifice of a sheep and a dove, so they offer two doves instead. Apparently the couple stays in Bethlehem for some time thereafter, because the magi, visiting perhaps two years after the birth, find Jesus as a child with his mother. Their adoration of Jesus as “King of the Jews” means many things, one of which was immanent danger, for surely Herod Antipas would want to kill someone born of full royal blood. Joseph is warned by an angel dream to flee with his family to Egypt. There they stay for several years before returning to Israel and to the town of Nazareth, which is deemed to be a safer place to raise the kingly son.
Joseph makes only one more appearance in the Gospels when Jesus is taken to the Temple at the age of 12. He most certainly passes away before Jesus reaches adulthood, but the circumstances surrounding his death are completely unknown to us. Some scholars believe that Joseph’s brother Clophas, also known as Alphaeus, takes Mary as his wife. This would have been customary, especially if Joseph fathered no children. The Gospels indicate that Jesus has brothers named James, Joses, Judas, and Simon and two sisters, perhaps named Mary and Salome. It is difficult to piece all of this together with any certainty, but it is clear that Mary is present in and around the ministry of Jesus and at Crucifixion and sees Him after the Resurrection.
So, given all of this, when we look at the Crèche this morning and see Mary and Joseph gathered around the still-empty manger, what do we see? What do we see in them?
I see two people who are absolutely non-descript, who are completely powerless in the face of cultural and political forces and yet God’s love come to them and God’s love comes to the world through them. It comes to and through Joseph who time and again lays aside his life, his dreams, his aspirations, his security, his prosperity, and his reputation to care for and nurture the love of God in his midst. In today’s world we might say that he puts down the remote and packs away the golf clubs and gives everything of himself to those who depended upon him.
In a violent and risky world, Joseph creates a place where it was safe for God’s love to come into the world. I think we do the same thing today whenever we work to sustain nurturing communities. Everything we put into this church building and into our common life is a way we create and sustain a place where it is safe for God’s love to come into the world. And what we do here is a sign for the work we can and should do in our neighborhoods and schools and places of work. We lay aside our selves in order to create avenues for God’s love to make safe passage into the world.
And if God’s love comes to and through Joseph as he lays aside himself, it comes to and through Mary as she gives of herself. I am thinking about this in a whole new way after reading a poem by Shelly Wagner called “Birth of a Child.” Shelly is Marty Wilson and Bunny Lewis’ cousin and she wrote this poem reflecting on the birth of her son, Andrew:
The birth began with a silent splash,
my womb bleeding.
The crown of the baby’s head
opened my body
like a camera lens
photographing the end of our union.
A doctor’s hands
as large as the child’s torso
freed the right shoulder,
then the left,
allowing the wet, slippery little boy
The child was laid like a gift on my breast.
Our heart’s duet continued.
My heart would not stop
pumping our blood
through the thick blue braid of veins,
its pulse pounded like a fist
to protest sterile scissors
cutting our connection.
For me the image of the son resting on the mother’s chest while still connected by the umbilical cord is very powerful. I wonder if Mary, barely fourteen at the time, had a moment like that with her first-born Son? Did the Son of God rest against her breast while her heart continued to beat for the two of them? I would like to think it happened just that way. It is such a wonderful image of God’s love coming into the world through a person.
Obviously you and I can’t give birth to God’s love like that in a literal sense, but perhaps we can in a spiritual sense. Perhaps we can see ourselves like Joseph laying aside our lives to safeguard a place for God’s love to appear. And perhaps like Mary we can imagine God’s love emerging into the world through us; through what we say and do and offer to one another. Some of us may lean more toward safeguarding, others toward birthing, but each of us does both.
I spent a little time yesterday at Wal-Mart, hardly the place where one would suspect God’s love to emerge. I was there to purchase a turkey and trimmings for our Food Pantry, which tomorrow will be overrun by folks whose best hope for a celebratory Christmas meal is in our hands. At Thanksgiving I quoted a line by James Joyce who described a sad, harried figure as being a “stranger to the feasts of life.” If we Episcopalians know anything, we know the value of a family feast. And for me, navigating the chocked aisles of Wal-Mart became an avenue for God’s love to come into the world through me. It was a time, brief and not at all difficult, for me to be Joseph, for me to be Mary.
When you look at Joseph and Mary, what of yourself do you see?