It is the fourth Sunday of advent. The last week of preparation as the journey towards the revelation of the Christ-child nears its conclusion. This week the fourth purple candle which represents love is lit, joining the candles of hope, peace and joy. On the fourth Sunday of Advent the lectionary focuses on preparation for the birth of the Christ-child.
The gospels each begin in a different way. The gospels of John and Mark do not have birth stories. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Mary and her experiences. I like this telling. It is so good to have a story about a woman’s experience told in a woman’s voice. Birth and child-bearing are women’s experiences and it is right that the Gospel of Luke acknowledges this. The time is measured in the weeks and months of pregnancy. Commenting on the Lukan account of the meeting between Mary and Elisabeth, Anne Thurston notes, “It should not surprise us then that the time-scale is shifted from the chronology of rulers and priests to that of this pregnant and prophetic woman.” (Knowing Her Place, 4).
Sadly, it is a brief moment. It does not last. Thurston again, “In the end the doors close over once more and the patriarchal framing and naming once again eclipse the stories of the women . . . The women have been silenced.” (ibid 9)
Today’s lectionary passage is taken from the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-25). Sadly, the woman’s voice is not heard here. The author of the gospel simply states that Mary was “found to be with a child of the Holy Spirit” (18). Mary is not given a voice in this gospel.
The chapter starts with a genealogy, at our Christmas Eve service for many years we have used a different genealogy which acknowledges the place and importance of the women. I will include it here. I would like to credit it but I do not know the source. I found it online many years ago.
It gives a little different perspective. It allows the women to be seen, or in some cases, notes their anonymity, their absence.
The story begins long ago . . .
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, the daughter of Anna: Sarah was the mother of Isaac, And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob, Leah was the mother of Judah, Tamar was the mother of Perez. The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon and Salmon have been lost. Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed. Obed's wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse. The wife of Jesse was the mother of David. Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon, Na'amah, the Ammonitess, was the mother of Rehoboam. Ma'acha was the mother of Abijah and Asa. Azubah was the mother of Jehosephat. The name of Jehoram's mother is unknown. Athalia was the mother of Ahaziah, Zibia of Beersheba, the mother of Jehoash. Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah, Jerushah bore Jotha; Ahaz's mother is unknown. Abijah was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hepzibah was the mother of Manassah, Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon, Jedidah was the mother of Jehoiakim, Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiakin, Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah. Then the deportation to Babylon took place. After the deportation to Babylon the name of the mothers go unrecorded. These are their sons: Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, and Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus, who is called the Christ. The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David's mother; fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation; and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Mary, the mother of Christ.
However, the author of the gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph’s story. I suspect the few short verses don’t reflect the turmoil and agony Joseph would have felt. Even in contemporary times if a couple were engaged and the woman announced she was pregnant with another man’s child it would cause a lot of trouble. Even typing that sentence made me aware of how quickly a woman would be blamed regardless of circumstances and her story.
Joseph first inclination was to “dismiss her quietly.” Of, course, the word “quietly” was to try and shield her from public disgrace, which redeems the text somewhat.
I find it sad that Joseph obviously did not accept Mary’s explanation of events. It took a divine intervention in the form of a dream to change his mind. Dreams were highly valued in first century Jewish tradition and the content was significant. For Joseph the words of the dream were more important than the words of his betrothed.
Yet, in spite of the patriarchal nature of the text, I want to follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.
I think that can be found in Joseph’s reaction after the dream. He remained faithful to Mary and the promises he had made to her, even though the text adds that he “did as the angel commanded (24)”. He married her and cared for her. This is a model of Joseph that can be emulated. This is where a blessing can be found in the text. Joseph can teach us about caring with faithfulness, kindness and acceptance.
Nel Noddings describes caring, “Caring involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the other’s . . . To act as one caring, then, is to act with special regard for the particular person in a concrete situation.” (Caring, 24).
Caring for others encompasses much of the message of the Gospels. Here it is found, in Joseph, on the first page of the New Testament. The motif of the Gospels is set. Caring is the way forward.
Of course, in the last verse of the text a baby is born. A baby is always a blessing. This baby, this special child, especially so. But it was Joseph who named the baby. It’s was still a man’s world! Yet, it can be balanced by the Lukan account as Thurston says, “Each time we re-visit the text the silence is broken and the voices of Mary and Elisabeth are heard again as women singing out hope” (Knowing Her Place, 9).