December 29, 2019
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Christmas Eve has been magical for me as long as I can remember. As a tiny child nestled next to my father and mother — my father’s wonderful baritone voice, my mother’s silence — as she often said, she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and me, singing the carols and mesmerized by the choir — listening to separate voices and the harmony — it was a night of wonder. We were once again on a journey: it was magical, lyrical, mystical — just the perfect night — holy and pure but, alas, it does not last, for soon, all too soon the mood changes.
First, we are awakened on Christmas Day to the remarkable prologue of John who raises the bar, forcing us to confront more than the beauty and wonder of that holy night. John pulls us away from sentimentality into the great “why” of this story and we must look at ourselves. We are not simply observers of the mystery; we must choose, we must say “yes, Lord” or “no, Lord” — we are called to see not simply a baby in a manger but the man hung on the tree — we are called to accept the Word of God, not just the words we find easy. And we must hear that humanity is as likely or more likely to reject the gift of God’s self, choosing instead our own way, our own path.
And now today, we wake up to a new day and a new year on the horizon and new challenges, and even peril. In a sense on this Sunday after Christmas — we leave the wonder of that holy night and in the true way of real life, we are now faced with a challenge. Today it all changes: Take the child and flee! The party is over. Joseph — the chosen father of the child not his, must once again act. Joseph becomes the one critical factor in Matthew’s telling of the birth narrative — Joseph is the one with vision and courage. This Sunday we leave behind the lyrical narrative and poetry of Luke and step into Matthew’s gospel. While Luke seeks to convey a universal message, a true story told in orderly fashion, Matthew is concerned with origins, identity and legitimacy.
Who is this child? Today we hear from that other birth narrative. Matthew is spare in telling the story. He lacks the poetry of the songs of Elizabeth, Zachariah, Mary and Simeon. He lacks the exquisite detail of that most holy night — the journey to Bethlehem, the inn, the stable, the shepherds and heavenly host singing glory to God. As I said last week, Matthew begins with a genealogy — the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham and the rehearsal of the “begets”.
We rarely hear this story and by the time we get to it, the tree and lights are on their way out, the gifts have been unwrapped and the after-Christmas shopping is done. But this story and the visit of the wise men kings that precedes it, is critical to the mystery of Christmas and we often miss an odd fact. It is connected to this notion of origin, identity and legitimacy. So much is made of Mary’s condition and the birth that the legitimacy of this child and, his identity as Emmanuel, God with us, is lost in the discarded wrapping paper. The key to the question is to be found with the shadowy figure of Joseph. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is a hero often missed in the weeks between Christmas and Epiphany.
Joseph is betrothed to Mary who is discovered to be with child and he is about to put her quietly away when an angel comes to him in a dream: Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife. And so he does, and because he does, the legitimacy of this child is assured and not only his legitimacy but his destiny, for it is through Joseph that Jesus is tied to the house of David and it is that tie that fulfills the prophetic promise of a savior, the Messiah. It is from a courageous act on the part of Joseph that this story can unfold.
This is the critical issue when the wise men set out from the East — most likely Persia. They are seekers but not just any seekers, they are scholars and leaders looking for the light. Our image of the three men with camels, solitary figures moving silently through the desert is inaccurate, they are more likely rich and travel with a larger entourage. They do not approach the palace of Herod as lonely wayfarers but as representatives of foreign lands. And this amazing encounter was more like a highly charged exchange between ambassadors than a chance meeting of strangers.
The polite conversation is filled with subtle nuance and the hospitality of the desert dictates careful posturing. But know this — the child of the house and lineage of David is a danger to Herod. Who are your people? Why have you come here? It matters, it matters so much that Herod ultimately seeks the child to kill him. And once again, the hero of the story is Joseph, who takes the child away when warned by an angel in a dream that the child is at risk.
Matthew connects the dots — the prophetic strands of holy scripture weave together a reminder that there is always more to this than meets the eye.
Joseph stands before us as a hero and a figure who challenges us to a life of vision and courage — a life of bold action and a destiny that will often be forgotten. We, too, are bearers of the light that has come into the world. We hold God with us, Emmanuel as a living reminder of God’s active presence in the world. We, like Mary are called to be God-bearers and like Joseph, dreamers who offer a life of service to this sacred child.