19 Dec 2010
“‘[Mary] will bear a son and you are to name Him Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.’” (Matt. 1:21) In the name …
Last weekend I attended the Frontier Drama Club’s production of the Shakespeare play Much Ado about Nothing. It’s been a long time, a real long time, since I read the play in either high school or college. It’s all about love and confusion, and I have to admit that I was confused at times. I had to keep turning around to ask the Sandersons questions since this was their second and third time to the show. But it all started to sort itself out and I began to understand what was happening up on stage. Much Ado about Nothing has a lot to do with two couples. One couple professes no interest in each other, and they’re tricked into admitting their mutual love. The other couple is fall-over-heals-at-first-sight in love with each other, but they’re tricked into falling out of love, at least for a while.
This play was written just before 1600. It was a different world back then, at least in our part of the world. It was strange to watch the wedding scene when the groom was tricked into publicly accusing his bride of infidelity. She protested her actual innocence, but none of the men would listen. I expected the father to challenge the suitor. I was waiting for some kind of confrontation where the father would stand-up for his daughter’s integrity. Instead, the father wishes that his daughter would have died because of the scandal that she had supposedly brought upon his family. This was the injustice that was the norm those four centuries ago. Women, even daughters and wives, were treated cruelly and callously, and this kind of behaviour was the norm. Since this was a Shakespeare comedy, everything had to work out for the good by the end of the play, and so the young and once-in-love couple is shown that they were duped. Now the wedding can take place a second time and everyone is happy. I’d love to see instead a version of the play where the bride comes up to the altar that second time and socks her intended husband right in the jaw. But again, Much Ado about Nothing is from 1600 not 2010.
We just jumped back 400 years in time. Now let’s try 2,000 years, back to the time of Joseph and Mary. The very first chapter of the very first book of the New Testament is rather dry. It lists Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Abraham. Somebody was the father of somebody, who was the father of somebody else, and this goes on for 42 generations. Because it’s so dry, the reader can gloss over those first 17 verses and jump right into the good stuff of the Christmas story. But to do so misses out on some pretty important information. Among all of those men listed in the 42 generations before Jesus, there are a few women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. The first finds her way into the Old Testament playing a prostitute, the second is a prostitute. The third is a foreigner and the fourth is a woman raped by King David.
The Evangelist Matthew is a pretty conservative guy, and yet he highlights these four women out of all the other unnamed mothers in Jesus’ genealogy. I think he’s trying to tell us even before the story of Jesus’ own unorthodox birth that our Saviour is pure of spirit but not of story, that Jesus doesn’t come into this world antiseptic and inoculated from all of our human shortcomings and blemishes. Jesus has got stories in his family history. It’s kind of common to hear stories of the newly rich trying to clean-up their family histories. Sometimes they got to be rich by being anything but a part of polite society, but once they get into that upper-echelon all of sudden their past is rewritten and sterilized. Not with Jesus. The messy and possibly embarrassing reality of His family’s story is kept intact, and it’s even the lead story on the news as we turn to the first page of our New Testament.
This then serves as the introduction to the story that Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is with child, but the child is not Joseph’s. “She was found to be with child,” says the Bible. We shouldn’t minimize what this entails. Mary must have been terrified. Adultery was a crime, at least for the woman, punishable by death. Think of the father’s reaction in Much Ado about Nothing 1600 years after Mary’s time. He wished his daughter were dead instead of accused. Think about the honour slayings that still take place in our day and age where women are murdered by their own families because of some supposed infidelity. Mary is pregnant without a husband. Thank God for the angel Gabriel who comes down from heaven to tell Joseph what’s really happening, but for everybody else there must have been the hint of scandal that Jesus may have been born out of wedlock. Now those four women in Jesus’ genealogy become important. Mary is like them. There’s a hint of scandal around Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ mother.
We shouldn’t force ourselves to ignore this fact out of pious respect for the Holy Family. This is, however, what we do, and a perfect example of this occurs this morning. The church tells us to read Matthew 1:18-24. This leaves out just the last verse in chapter one. I’ll read it and you can figure out why it’s omitted: “[Joseph] had no relations with [Mary] until she bore a son …” Matthew is going out of his way to present Jesus and the Holy Family as not unfamiliar with life’s difficulties and embarrassments. He does this so that Jesus is recognized as one of us. That’s the whole purpose of Christmas, to show that God has become one of us, that no one’s life-story excludes them from union with the Saviour who has become one of us. Jesus’ story is complicated because all of ours are too. This is what “Immanuel” means, God is with us. We should appreciate the messiness of Jesus’ story because in that messiness is God’s absolute willingness to be with us where we are. When we sterilize the story, we undermine its purpose, even if our intent is pious. That we may come to better appreciate the real-life humanity of our God and Saviour, and through it the promise of Jesus’ closeness and intimacy with those of us who are not perfect, for this we pray on this the last Sunday of Advent, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo