The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Advent IV, Year A
The story of Jesus’ birth—yes, this is it in Matthew in that line “until she had borne a son”—is not the easiest of stories to connect to the season of Advent. It is so stark and to the point (and Matthew’s author had many points he was making in the short 8 verses) that it is hard to connect it to the themes of anticipation, waiting, receptivity, and so forth that we tend to associate with Advent. It is much easier to make these connections when hearing Luke’s version. In trying to think about how to tie this passage in to the theme of waiting that I have been preaching on, I discovered an interesting symmetry in the stories of Mary and Jesus. It may take me awhile to ramble my way there, but I will get there I promise. Let me know if you think what I see makes sense. That symmetry I discovered led me to think of the tensions of waiting and living both in the here and now in a world that still needs full redemption—as our prayers of the people so perfectly illustrated–and being part of the Body of Christ that is living the resurrected life of full redemption and grace.
Tension is one of the things we see in this story today. The tensions laid out here are ones that repeat in this Gospel: tension between the letter and the spirit of the law and between early Christians, many of whom were Jewish, and Jews being two of them. In this story, Joseph chooses not to follow the strict letter of the law in his planned response to Mary’s pregnancy. According to the law she would have been stoned. Scholars and historians tend to agree that by this time this punishment was not generally implemented and other ways had been adopted, though still ones that cast shame. Joseph instead, as best he can, opts for mercy in a way that respects both the law and the command to love given by Jesus. This story was written years after Jesus’ death and the author is clearly injecting the command to love of Jesus back into this story. Joseph embodies the dilemma of many early Christians who were Jewish and Matthew portrays him to be a prototype and example for these early followers of Jesus. Likewise, we too live in the same tension of adherence to the law and responding to situations where the law or legal response seems inadequate, wrong or misguided, with mercy and love.
Likewise, Jesus is understood to be the son of God by the movement of the Holy Spirit and the participation of Mary. Joseph gives him a human lineage of the house of David. For Paul as we hear in today’s readings, it seems quite clear that he understands Jesus’ birth and conception to happen in a way like ours (descended from David according to the flesh). Luke takes this story in Matthew and expands on it dramatically. At the time this was written similar stories about the birth of Moses from a virgin were in circulation, so even within culture and scripture there are multiple ways to understand the origin’s of Jesus. And that is a good thing. We can explore and engage all of them.
The early hearers of this story weren’t worried about the tension of this as we are and all the other issue we have brought into this story such as original sin, purity, a negative view of human sexuality, etc.. The story points to the union of the divine saving plan and the royal human household of Israel—its kings and anointed ones. Matthew’s author and his understanding of how Jesus was conceived are concerned not with biological questions, but with the function this person would have in the saving of Israel by God. In other words, the focus is on Jesus’ role and function, not his nature. Is he human? Is he divine? Is he a hybrid? These aren’t Matthew’s questions really. His concern is what this child is going to accomplish for God and for God’s people. This story of Jesus’ conception and parentage are never referred to again in any way and even if deleted the confession and understanding of Jesus’ role as a savior would still stand firm in this Gospel. This is not the proof so to speak of Jesus’ identity. It is his life and the cross and what God brings forth from it.
And it is here that I would like to explore a bit and start winding my way to the symmetry between Mary and Jesus. The heart of this whole passage is, at least to me, that line “and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us”. This is the kernel, the nugget of theological insight, the gem. He isn’t named Emmanuel of course; he is named Jesus which is play on the Hebrew word “to save” and related to the name Joshua who in the Hebrew Scriptures was a saving figure in history. But Jesus saves us by being with us.
That is the very crux of the incarnation. And it is amazing when we think on it. We preachers often get pressure to always connect the readings with the nitty gritty of daily life, but sometiems we need to simple spend time on our theology and what it proclaims. We need to ponder it and contemplate it for that is what shapes how we see and understand the daily nitty gritty. So for us we hear this: Jesus saves us by being one with us. It is the total and complete merging of divinity and humanity until we perceive that there is no separation between the two in him. And if we belong to him, than our hope too is to be so close to God that our humanity is totally infused with divinity. It is a sharing of natures and being. It is participatory and active and also full of tension—we live in Christ, but all has not been reconciled to him in this world.
It is all about embodiment. We humans are best at understanding what is enfleshed. If we believe as we confess that the nature of God is love, than love came to be embodied in the way we could understand: in a human being. It is about bodies: Jesus’ body, Mary’s body, Christ’s Body, my body, your body, our body. It has always puzzled me that for so much of the church for so long there was, and still is, disdain and even feelings of disgust towards the human body. It is precisely in a human body that God chooses to express the greatest acts and revelations of love. It is in and through a body that we are fed and grow into Christ’s image.
It was at this point in my ramblings that I suddenly saw this mirror image of Jesus and Mary. Before his death Jesus gives us the the Eucharistic Meal, Holy Communion, and it opens with the words, this is my body given for you. Jesus gives his body to the cross to reveal God’s salvation. Jesus gives us the gifts of bread and wine understood now to be so much more than that—the very nourishment of God. We are fed by him and through him and our task is to then go out and feed others. We wait for our acts of nourishment to bring forth the kingdom and persevere in doing them even when it seems they have no impact.
Mary is the mirror of this. If Jesus gives us the body of God, Mary gives God her body. She too says this is my body the moment she says yes to the invitation to bear the Messiah. For nine months her very being feeds and nurtures this little life. Her body very literally feeds that of Jesus, just as in time his life will be the food of salvation for her and for all who believe in him. Mary is with Jesus and he with her in the most intertwined and unified way: one dwells within the other. Talk about being with one another! Mary as one person holds within her the divine incarnation of love and brings it forth in the person of Jesus. Jesus as that incarnation shares it with the whole world and allows it to be received by us as a whole and as individual persons. Like Jesus whose body endures the cross and is raised a spiritual body as Paul says, Mary’s body bears pain and is forever changed in the act of childbirth. In some ways Jesus and Mary can be seen not only as the Messiah and Virgin Israel, which is certainly one of the many levels that Matthew wants us to read this story on, who is to be saved, but also as the masculine and feminine ways we understand the holy. Jesus does not come to be without her; Mary does not come to fullness of life without him.
And in all of this we find a variety of ways that God is with us. God is within us. God is among us. God is our very being as the Body of Christ. Mary is blessed to be the very first person that the God we know in Jesus is with. He is with her in the most intimate way possible: connected, tethered to her for life and the sustaining of life. In time, it is we who will be tethered to him for sustained life through the bread and the wine and the life and the cross and the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
Like Mary, we wait. We wait for Jesus to grow in us so fully that we totally and utterly his. We wait for the Body of Christ in the world to be a witness to his mercy and peace and compassion and for the world to respond. We wait for the love of God that was embodied in Jesus to be embodied in each of us and in this world—heaven on earth, where it should be, the will of God indistinguishable from ours.