Based on Matthew 1:18-25
On Friday, November 29th, less than a month ago, I stood in a little chapel in the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. We had just heard Mathew’s gospel account of the birth of Jesus. You know how when you’ve heard something about a 100 times, you don’t really hear it anymore because you think you know everything there is to know about it? Well there I was, in this appointed sacred place, with a healthy dose of skepticism. I know nobody really knows the facts around Jesus’ birth, and I remember as a youth feeling ostracized by other Christian friends because I was from that United Church which questioned the whole `virgin birth’ story, and I remember thinking, yes but Matthew is misquoting Isaiah, it doesn’t say `virgin’ it says `young woman’ – in Hebrew it’s a different word…
I tell you all this to show how quickly our minds can take a little journey on their own, when we think we know all there is to know about something.
Omar, our guide from the Sabeel Conference, a six day conference on Palestinian liberation theology, said that as they studied this scripture, they saw that Joseph was willing to break unjust rules and that we should have the courage to do the same. That got my attention!
As a good Christian and law-abiding citizen, I found that a bit challenging. Break the rules? Break the laws? Well, I’m here to tell you if they hadn’t been broken, we would not be celebrating Advent or Christmas at all.
I knew, that `back in the day’ – that is Jesus’ day, it would not do for a woman to have a child out of wedlock. To be found to be pregnant would be interpreted as committing adultery- against the 7th commandment, and punishable by death. (Somehow the 6th commandment, ‘You shall not kill.’ didn’t seem to come into play!) As Omar reminded us, `honour killings’ are still going on in that part of the world and in other cultures today. Women, in middle east- whether Jew, Muslim, Christian or `other’ are still culturally tied to having a husband. A single women/ a single woman with a child (unless she is a widow) is very rare, and very much judged in a negative light.
So, 2000 years before our `enlightened age’ , a man who finds out his fiancé is pregnant, and he had nothing to do with it, decides, on his own, to break the law, to disregard the rules, and free the woman he loves, that she may perhaps, be free to love the father of this unplanned child.
Well, that’s pretty big of him, don’t you think? Still he had some divine help – didn’t the angel say, `Go ahead Joseph, this child is of the Holy Spirit.’ Nope. That comes after. Joseph decides to break the rules before the angel talks to him. He has already decided that the rules are wrong, they are destructive to human dignity and indeed human life.
That’s pretty amazing. Then, the dream/the holy voice within him strengthens him to take an even more audacious step, to support Mary all the way, in the way that women had legitimacy in his day – by becoming her husband, her guardian, and raising the child as his own. What an example of integrity for each of us to follow.
In less than two weeks in Palestine and Israel, I encountered only a surface brush with some rules that are unjust and soul-destroying: Palestinians still living in refugee camps since 1948, when soldiers kicked them out of their homes and destroyed their villages; Palestinian children as young as 12 years old being arrested in the middle of the night, hand-cuffed and blindfolded, detained for months at a time with no access to family members or lawyers, accused of such serious crimes as throwing rocks or writing graffiti; Palestinians not being allowed to drive on the same roads as Israelis, and Palestinian villages bulldozed to make way for more Israeli settlements – acknowledged by the UN as being completely illegal. I wonder what Joseph would do?
Some questions I invite you to ponder with an open heart in the head-long rush to Christmas…
What rules are you willing to challenge or break for the higher good – angel voice, or no angel voice? What sacrifices are you willing to make, to call attention to the inequality that exists in our communities, our nation, our world. What is your part in God’s plan of salvation – (from the word salve) that is healing for the world? May we all have the courage and integrity of this seldom mentioned man, Joseph, that God’s will may truly be done in our living – for each blessed day, for each holy night. Amen.