‘Be careful what you throw away’ my grandmother used to say, ‘you never know when you might need it’. This accords well with the saying: ‘don’t buy new when old will do’. It is fun and refreshing to buy new things but to my mind there is a gentle warning here to be careful when we contemplate discarding that which might be of great value.
Keeping this caution in mind, in today’s Gospel reading Joseph, albeit with honourable intention, is minded to dismiss Mary quietly to save her from public disgrace as she is with child while still engaged to him. This is not discarding but it is close to being so in its intention to put away and conceal that which emerges in the Gospel narrative as coming into being for the salvation of mankind.
Fortunately, as Matthew goes on to write, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary will bear a son, to be named Jesus, who will ‘save his people from their sins’. This birth, we are told, will be the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy ‘that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’. When Joseph wakes up he obeys the angelic command by taking Mary as his wife with ‘no marital relations until she bore a son and he was named Jesus’.
Unfortunately, in spite of this obedience to the Divine will, we know from Matthew’s Gospel and the remaining Gospel narratives of Mark, Luke and John that, following the birth of Jesus, the initial attempt to conceal him before birth is succeeded by attempts to discard him made by those who fear him. Thus in Matthew’s Gospel King Herod sends out the three wise men to search for him but once more an angel intervenes by instructing Joseph in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. Then all four Gospel writers inform us that as the adult Jesus undertakes a healing and teaching ministry, the Pharisees perceive him as a growing threat to the Jewish law, trying to foot fault him in what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. In the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke when Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth he is rejected by those suspicious of his wisdom as the son of a carpenter. The testing and accusations by the Pharisees continue, Judas betrays Jesus, and all culminating in the ultimate rejection of the Crucifixion. The Divine will prevails though with the Resurrection.
God, then, has the last word but there is mourning for the rejection of Jesus which we can find in Acts in the words of Peter as prisoner in Jerusalem when he addresses the rulers, elders and scribes under Annas the High Priest. He says that Jesus, who was crucified whom God raised from the dead is ‘the stone that was rejected by you the builders; it has become the cornerstone’.
To return today’s Gospel reading we can be fair to Joseph by saying that he was attempting to be obedient to the law as given in the Old Testament but tempering it with compassion. The Old Testament ruling of Deuteronomy was, after all, stern. If a woman to be married was not found to be a virgin she was stoned to death. Matthew’s relationship the Old Testament is complex here. His aim is to demonstrate by reference to the Old Testament how truly and unexpectedly the birth of Jesus has fulfilled the deepest hopes and aspirations of the Law and the prophets yet in order to do this it requires an overturning of the Deuteronomistic law in the compassion of Joseph and in the reference to the Old Testament prophecy that a boy will be born and named ‘Emmanuel’. This unique conception and birth must not be hidden away from mankind and so the stern law must be overruled in favour of the birth. If Matthew was alive today I am sure he would welcome the wonderful statements by Tom Wright in his book ‘Simply Christian’. They read as follows: ‘With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut’.
Matthew wanted to stress the divine nature of Jesus as it was a major issue for the Matthean community, crucial in separating the early Christian community from their Jewish neighbours. This Christian community was part of a larger Jewish community. To achieve this he combines traditional material with imaginative creativity. In his book ‘Discovering Matthew’ Ian Boxall describes this as ‘creative historiography’. Here, the Old Testament is used to illuminate historical happenings. In this process we see the creative reinterpretation of Mark’s rather blunt narrative. For example, the ‘young man’ at Jesus’ tomb in Mark’s Gospel becomes ‘the radiant angel’ in Matthew.
Angels are key players in Matthew’s creative purpose. They are the divine mediators between heaven and earth. Following the appearance of an angel to Joseph in his dream there are further angelic appearances in the Gospel. In chapter 4, they are referred to by the Devil as bearing up Jesus so that he will not dash his foot against a stone. In chapter 26, Jesus tells his enemies that if he were to call upon his Father to rescue him ‘he would at once send him more than twelve legions of angels’. In all this we find the ‘shekinah’ meaning the glory of God as a shimmering luminosity hovering over individuals and groups.
Angels have many functions in the Bible. These are distinct from the word ‘Angel’ which simply means messenger. They have an unusual authority over the created order, including a responsibility for children. In Matthew’s parable of the Lost Sheep we learn from Jesus that we must not despise children as in heaven their angels continually see the face of their Father in heaven. Angels protect, guide and carry out tasks on behalf of God. There is a hierarchy with Michael as Prince and Archangel with special authority and angels can appear in numbers and power in angelic worship. In Isaiah they surround the Lord sitting on the throne calling to one another:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’.
In art, angels are depicted in human shape with extraordinary beauty. Such depictions take many forms. In the nineteenth century painting by Gustave Doré, Jacob wrestles with the angel. In Ludovico Carracci’s painting of the early seventeenth century, angels are depicted dining with Abraham. Then there is the gentle ‘Tobias and the angel’ by the fifteenth century artist Filippino Lippi and Carl Bloch’s nineteenth century angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the negative side of this angelic coin stands the Devil as the chief rebellious angel. Then there is the denial by scientists of their existence because they cannot fit into a world explicable by causes open to scientific examination. Let us, though, at this time when Christmas is nearly upon us, hold on to the shekinah being the glory of God.
Matthew also uses dreams for his creative purpose. As a Jewish Christian he may well have been influenced by the ancient Hebrew connection of dreams with religion. This connection is shared by Christians as the Old Testament includes frequent stories of dreams with divine inspiration, one such being Jacob’s ladder.
Let us then not discard Matthew’s dreams and angels as they affirm what we are on the brink of celebrating which is the birth of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind.