18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiahtook place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
This passage cannot be read except in tandem with Luke 21:26-38.
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Matthew writes from Joseph’s perspective without giving him voice. Luke writes using Mary’s voice and historically the narrative has focused on her and not God. Let me combine the narratives.
Joseph is caricatured as a bystander to the birth narratives of Jesus. But in fact through his acceptance of a providential dream he becomes, in the culture of that day, the protector, preserver and place of safety for the Christ. Without him, Mary and her son would have been abandoned, marginalized and isolated. He is to be remembered and emulated for his faithfulness to God.
Mary has often been described as a blank slate, an easy spiritual mark, a sort of vacuous, almost mythical figure of innocence. Mary’s strength, like Josephs, is in her willingness to follow God into the unknown, that is a place and person of strength. Young, sheltered, female, disempowered and virginal does not deprive one of one’s ability to make choices, nor does it make one ignorant. The hyperbolic adulation currently made to Mary is a minor down payment on the historic misogyny of the church. Women did well in the first two centuries and Christ’s mother, sisters and brothers were significant leaders in the early church (yes, Mary and Joseph eventually got round to consummating their relationship and had more children). Women also had significant roles in historic monasticism and modern Christian revival. Mary was never a forebearer of women’s gifts being expressed. Yet it is left to her and Joseph to say ‘yes’ to God. That choice is ours as well, regardless of our gender. Without them, the Messiah could not have come.
Spare yourself the mental gymnastics of imagining God finding someone else. He chose them. Mary chooses to allow God to change the world. If the word ‘no’ had passed through her lips to Gabriel, none of this would have been possible. One phrase stood between the birth of Jesus and the willingness of Mary to bear the Messiah. The one word ‘yes’ to God stood between the hope of Jesus or the continuation of chaos.
Mary and Joseph’s response said simply this at the first Christmas: I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me, as you have said.
May it be said of each of us, that in our time and place and at every successive day of our lives, we echo just those words: I am the Lord’s servant, as we wait upon God… May the Messiah come once again to our world in a renewed way and also in a renewed way to me…even now, come Lord Jesus.
A God-filled, holy and Spirit-filled season be yours, and those you love, serve and live in community with.