I like to be organised, and wrote today’s sermon two weeks ago. I focused on Joseph.
And then William and Joanna sent me the orders of service, mentioning that we celebrate Mary today. Thus this past week left me rewriting everything from scratch!
But that’s great news, because I can now focus on two heroes, two great people from the Christmas story. But let us not forget, both of them point not to themselves, but only to Jesus.
Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus brings out the role of Joseph. It makes a number of key points relevant to both him and Mary, but a major one is that Jesus’ father was not Joseph. We are told in v18 that the pregnancy happened before they lived together; v19 that Joseph’s character was full of integrity; v20 that the child is from God; v23 that Mary was a virgin; and v25 that Joseph did not have marital relations until after the birth.
In other words, Jesus’s origins are not from a frisky chap who had his wicked way with Mary! In that ancient culture, it would be quite difficult for a man to spend time alone with a woman before marriage – families were always present, and Mary would be protected by the males around her. Matthew’s point is that the child Jesus had origins from somewhere else. Nothing humans did. The child is given through the Holy Spirit of God.
The ancient Greeks had lots of stories about their deities seducing maidens. The demigods of Greek mythology were very often the products of a liaison between Zeus and a human woman he took a fancy to. So in the Greek mind, it would be normal for a deity to seduce a woman and impregnate her. But we need to remember that Matthew is Jewish: the Jews abhorred Greek religion, and to compare the holiness of Yahweh the God of Israel with the filthy Zeus would be a stoning offence!
This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but no sexual union is involved. The one who made the womb has just as easily given it life without the involvement of any human.
Now imagine you are Joseph: he is going to be pretty annoyed. He might be doing his business, making a bit of a name for himself, a proud upstanding member of the community, with a growing customer base, people trusting him because he’s honest and works hard.
And he’s found this great girl Mary, she’s attractive and he’s been able to do a great deal to make sure he’s the one who’s going to marry her. He’s delighted and thinking of how respectable he’s going to be: Joseph Esquire, with Mary his trophy wife: Carpenter to the King, Affordable hand-crafted excellence! And now it will be Joseph & Sons (or daughters!).
And then Mary says “Erm…I’m pregnant”… You can imagine Joseph’s shock and then fury. She has betrayed him. She has humiliated him. Couldn’t she have done this before they were engaged, before they want public, before wedding preparations had begun? She’s stabbed him in the back – but people will think he is the father! His reputation will go through the dirt! “Oh that’s Joseph, he couldn’t keep his urges under control”.
So to try and limit the reputational damage, he seeks to put her away quietly. But don’t forget, he’s not just a selfish guy, he is actually a good man, and he doesn’t want her to be disgraced. He does care for her. And as a good Jew, he’s following Deuteronomy 24:1, which says “if a wife has something objectionable, the husband can give her a certificate of divorce and send her away”. He’s trying to do the right thing in this mess.
But an angel appears and asks Joseph to do something else. “No Joseph, you are not to send this woman away. You are to marry her, but first she’s going to have a baby. And yes, everyone will think either you couldn’t keep yourself under control, or she’s been with another man. But tough. Your reputation doesn’t matter here. What matters is she has someone to care for her at her most vulnerable time. And that’s your job. You provide an element of protection in a hostile world as this woman brings into being a special child. Eat your pride, Joseph. Learn humility.”
By taking Mary as his wife, Joseph gave her safety. He gave her validity. And he brought all the shame on himself. What a hero. What an example of losing everything, all respect and societal honour, for the sake of a higher calling.
It is true to say that Matthew presents Joseph as the main actor, with Mary being much less passive. But at the end of today’s service, we have a section called The Angelus, in which we remember Mary’s role and recognise that throughout the previous 2000 years, she has inspired people and been much more of a focus than Joseph.
Poor Mary. She is very vulnerable in Matthew, subject to the decisions of those around her. And since then, she has been the subject of argument, not least in the Reformation. I very much grew up in a tradition that is suspicious of saints, Marian devotion, and all ‘Popery’! Yet when I was in Russia, an Orthodox believer asked me once, “Glen, would you ask me to pray for you in times of difficulty?” I said yes. He replied “Then why would you not ask a great Christian of the past to pray for you? For that person has run the race, won the prize, and is in new life with Christ. Surely a better person to intercede for you?”
It certainly made me think. Thankfully there have been many commissions that have studied the arguments between Catholics and Reformers, and a joint Catholic-Anglican commission came together to declare some foundations on which both churches agree: the prime one being that there is one Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ. Anything that places Mary in a salvation role is simply wrong. She was saved by her baby.
So where did the devotion to Mary come from that has so divided Christians? The answers lie in the early centuries after Christ. The Church was facing many intellectual attacks, one of which said Jesus just appeared to be a human.
No, the Church Fathers replied: he was fully human, of the same substance with his mother. And more than that, Jesus was the Word made flesh from conception. He was God incarnate united with human flesh in the womb. There was not a birth, and then the baby became God. Just as death was an event God went through in Jesus, so birth was an event God went through. That’s quite mind-blowing!
And thus, it is actually right to say that Mary is Theotokos. For the Greek word, Theotokos, means “she who gave birth to one who was God”. And that is what is meant when we say “Mother of God” – or more accurately, she was mother of God Incarnate, in other words, mother to Jesus Christ.
There has been much debate and argument over whether “Mother of God” is a good translation, because we do not mean she somehow begat God Almighty! But in her human role, she gave birth to and nurtured Jesus, who was in the Father, and the Father in him.
Maybe like me (still) you have some awkwardness at the The Angelus, but my way through it is to remember the meaning behind the words. The Angel said “Hail Mary: Greetings Mary”. We are not “hailing” her, we are repeating the words of the Angel in the King James Bible – hail means to greet. And when we say “Mother of God”, we refer to the fact that she gave birth to Jesus, and served him as mother.
The last line is “Pray for us, O holy Mother of God: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ“. And that is what it’s all about. That we might be ready and prepared for his coming in our lives.
Mary was chosen. She was gifted the ultimate gift, but with it came so much burden and oh what shame! So many awkward questions. Yet she carried the child, cared for it, and received the ultimate blessing. Blessed is she among women, for she carried her saviour! She carried and nurtured the love of God.
Today let us remember Joseph and Mary. They both sacrificed reputation, future plans, and societal standing in order to be faithful to God’s calling.
This Christmas, God is calling us too. He’s calling us to be people in whom Christ can be born. He’s calling us to lay aside the trappings of this world and to be people among whom Jesus Christ can flourish.
That means sacrifice. It means faithfully loving and serving others, in the same way that a baby takes your time. We happily serve our babies, but do we also willingly visit elderly people who are suffering, lonely or dying? Do we surround them with love and comfort?
Do we pray faithfully for those we know who do not know Jesus as Lord and saviour? Do we model love, care, compassion and sacrifice in our homes? So that non-Christians can see our lives and ask “why do you live differently?”
Do we give faithfully of our money, to support those who have so little? Are we sure that our friends and family – and the homeless people in our vicinity – are being cared for and know they are loved?
Joseph and Mary are faith models for us, modelling the Christian life: one of dying to ourselves, and living for Jesus.
So let us honour Mary, let us honour Joseph, by living as they did: for the sake and glory of their Son.
Report on Anglican and Roman Catholic dialogue concerning Mary: