REFLECTION ADVENT 4 Isaiah 7: 10-16 Matthew 1: 18-25
Well we have emerged from the desert. We have heard the call to repentance, to turn to God, to make a straight path and be ready to welcome the One who is to come. We are coming close. The voice of the prophets is quieter now. Today there is still the voice of Isaiah exclaiming over how the people test the patience of the both humans and God. I’m sure we must often do that! Back then, the people of the southern kingdom of Judah have been living in fear of invasion from the northern kingdom of Israel and the Assyrians. There was an underlying tension and they haven’t found it easy to trust in God. They aren’t told that all will be well, rather that indeed there will be turmoil, but, they are told, God will be at work among them. And they are given the promise of the sign of the child, Emmanuel, to be born into their royal house of David.
So we read this today and draw our own connections with this message: the contrast between the fear and threat and the extraordinary statement about a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son. It’s not the sort of reassuring answer that people would expect, unless this child would become a mighty king. But, as we know, kings rise and fall. Kingdoms rise and fall. And ordinary people get caught up in the terrible dynamics and bloodshed that so often occurs. David’s relationship with Bathsheba, his disregard of his faithful general Uriah and the terrible consequences, like the death of the child from that illicit union, these are a painful story in themselves. And yet, and yet, the promise remains, that the Messiah, the one who will bring God’s kingdom to fruition, will come from this same royal line. The prophets foretold him, infant of wonder, just as Isaiah speaks of the birth of a Son, born to a virgin.
That statement itself can be a sticking point for many people. We do know that the word that is translated here as “virgin” can also just mean a young girl, a young woman. We can get side-tracked by this discussion about Mary’s virginity. The important thing is that it is through God’s intervention that an ordinary girl becomes the one who will bear the baby, the child who will be called Immanuel, God with us. This is what Matthew tells us, as the story brings us towards the birth. Matthew doesn’t make much of it at all. I expect that you noticed what wasn’t there: no Bethlehem, no stable, no shepherd and angelic choirs, no ox and ass and manger. Matthew has begun his gospel with the genealogy. It is divided up into 3 groups of 14, or 6 groups of 7. 7 is an important number. Think of the creation story, the Jubilee in the 7th year that followed the creation story’s pattern so that all debts were written off and slaves freed in the 7th year. Jesus birth comes as the final one in the last group of 7, ushering in a new jubilee year. This is important to Matthew, more so than any other images that may have accumulated around this holy and surprising birth.
Notice too who the main character is in Matthew’s gospel. It is not Mary. Of course her role was pivotal, but it is Joseph who features more largely. Joseph, who will overlook the demands of custom and culture and, because of a dream in which the Lord appears, will stand by Mary and take her as his wife and so link the child back in his line of descent. Joseph and his dreams link people back to the earlier Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures who was also a dreamer. He ended up in Egypt, where this Joseph will also take his new family.
Matthew’s Christmas story may not have the rather romantic imagery but it does have a deep theme of God with us in Jesus, showing that God remains faithful and present, remains with us, even through all the terrible brutality of history and through our own times when, like the people of Judah, we are tempted to lose faith and hope. The people of Aleppo, the people of Syria and Iraq and Yemen, people everywhere need us to keep faith and hope in the promise of this child. And we do that by realising that the child becomes the man, surviving the wrath of the king and the infant massacres of Matthew’s account, becoming a refugee and then turning up in Nazareth and going out into the desert before emerging to proclaim God’s kingdom of love. Immanuel, God with us.
I had been going to apologize for not giving into any expectations you may have about the imagery of Christmas card story, but I have decided not to. I will tell you now that you are not going to hear it on Christmas Day either, though of course it is written in there into so many carols. We make much of Christmas and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it hasn’t always been like that. For the early Church Easter was the focus, not Christmas. Indeed in 386 the marking of the Christmas season was being described as “newfangled”. It had only been celebrated in Antioch, one of the great cities of the time, for the preceding 10 years.
The manger scene, with the associated carols and candlelight has its origins in St Francis of Assisi in 1223. Up until then Christmas had been marked just by people attending Mass where the priests told the story in Latin, a language that very few could understand. Francis decided he wanted to make the story more accessible. Having got permission from the pope, he obtained hay, an ox and an ass and prepared a manger and a place for them up on a hillside above the town of Greccio. The people of the town were summoned and came running through the trees carrying their lights and singing hymns. Francis preached to them about the nativity of the poor King. It was a very emotion packed experience.
It’s a bit different nowadays. In the shopping centre at Carlingford Court there are lots of lights and decorations, carols playing and so on. Upstairs, unadorned, unremarked, in a corner is a display case with the nativity scene, “passed”, in the words of a hymn we will sing on Christmas day, “by many a wandering stranger” who barely give it a glance. After all, what has that to do with this Christmas celebration! We are overcome by political correctness and put the nativity away in a corner, when, in fact, those of many other faiths whom I know, have no trouble at all with this Christian holy time.
In a way, Matthew’s version of the story, with no manger scene at all, draws us back to understand how it is we can talk about hope, peace, joy and love at this time, and nearly everyone does, whether or not they are Christian. Others may interpret these things differently. We can hold onto our belief that these things come from the very heart of God who would embed them in our hearts and gives us Jesus, God with us, so we can understand how to live in that. This is indeed cause for celebration and for all the things we may be doing to prepare for Christmas 2016.