Fourth Sunday of Advent Year A
One of the recurrent themes in Matthew’s birth narrative is that of dire danger. In his opening chapters, the world the Christ is born into swarms with violence, betrayal, and murderous intention.
In some ways, we are very familiar with this theme.
After Jesus is born and the Magi visit Herod, he fears Jesus as a threat to his political reign and so orders the slaughter of all male children under two years of age.
Joseph, Mary, and their baby then face the innumerable threats confronting subsistence-level peasants fleeing, defenseless and impoverished, to a foreign country. Robbers, disease, lack of food or water, the winter wet and cold. They are a donkey’s hurt hoof from being trapped in the pitiless desert.
But there are dangers we can immediately see in Matthew’s story . . . and then there are those that we must discern with much more care.
Siegfried Sassoon, the World War 1 poet, writes of “murder wearing the mask of law.” He reminds us that sometimes, lying just below the calm and reassuring surface of righteousness and goodness, there can await terrible dangers.
Our Gospel passage tonight presents exactly this scenario.
Even if it’s more difficult to see at first, there is another moment in Matthew’s narrative, even before Jesus is born, in which the threat of violence and betrayal endangers the coming of God into the world.
And the danger comes from Joseph.
Not from a killing king.
Not from a slashing robber lurking in the desert dark.
I understand if you feel some resistance to this idea. After all, Matthew clearly claims that Joseph wants to make the best of a bad situation: in fact, because he is righteous, he plans to “dismiss [Mary] quietly.”
And I can see Matthew’s point. Under the Mosaic law, Joseph had the right, upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, to denounce her.
The result, though, would not have been, as Matthew suggests, “public disgrace.” As if people would have simply talked nastily behind Mary’s back or pointedly ignored her when she came to the village well to draw water.
Instead, the consequence of Joseph’s accusation would have been a horrible death: stoning, by the people she’d known all her life, at the door of her family home.
Joseph seeks to save Mary from this fate. He wants to make the problem go away, without anyone getting hurt.
Still, I invite you to reflect with me on what underlies that phrase: “dismiss her quietly.”
I propose that, just as murder can wear the mask of law, abandonment can wear the mask of care.
Joseph fails to see, or deliberately ignores, that while his involvement in Mary’s appalling situation ends if he dismisses her, MARY REMAINS UNDER A DEATH SENTENCE.
In their culture, in which honor and shame are collective,
and in which women’s sexual purity is governed with homicidal rigor, she has no reliable protection against lethal violence now that her pregnancy is known.
As Jesus’s encounter with the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John indicates, any man could thrust a woman into the public judgment that ends in her gruesome death. Joseph was not her only possible accuser.
Or Mary’s family might have been pressured by the community to reject this “impure” young girl. She could have been driven out of the village, left to a life of destitution, humiliation, starvation, or even worse.
In sum, by breaking his ties with her, Joseph would have left Mary to anything but a quiet, peaceful life.
I do not mean to say that Joseph is an immoral man. Again, he’s doing the best he thinks he can.
Instead, this passage demonstrates the radical demands of the Gospel.
JOSEPH’S MISTAKE IS IN BELIEVING THAT RIGHTEOUSNESS ALLOWS HIM TO BE SAFE.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SAFE FAITH IN MARY’S SON, THE SON WHO WILL BE MURDERED PUBLICLY AND HORRIBLY.
INSTEAD, THE GOSPEL OF THE EXECUTED SAVIOR DEMANDS THAT WE INTENTIONALLY PLACE OURSELVES IN DANGER.
And we must do so because that’s where the poor are, where the lost are, where the powerless are. These are, like Mary, the endangered.
Joseph’s dream is filled with angelic reassurance about the purposes of God. But for me, what’s most divine in the story is that something comes from the deepest part of Joseph that empowers him to stand by, to embrace, to be loyal to Mary, a vulnerable, defenseless human being.
Which means that her dangers are his, her risks are his.
Which means that Joseph says Yes to the physical, emotional, spiritual dangers they will now face together along the way to wherever God leads.
We have recently celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. But this Gospel passage also suggests that in a sense Mary appears to us every day.
Mary is everywhere.
She is a silent, skeletal figure in a nursing home bed.
A screaming young man with shit-filled pants on Valencia Street.
A Honduran child moaning with fever on the damp concrete floor of a wire cage.
Or someone you see daily whose pain is too familiar or too boring to willingly engage.
We are challenged in her many manifestations with a crucial decision. (And let us remember that the original meaning of the word “crucial” is “cross-shaped.”)
It’s the same choice Joseph faced.
Do we choose the righteousness that lets us avoid intimate, passionate entwining with the ugliness and pain and danger of this broken world?
Or do we deliberately take into ourselves into the shadowy places of uncertainty, instability, sorrow, terror . . . where emerges, somehow, in the mystery of the Spirit, the holiness that comes only from making the pains and losses of others deeply, deeply ours?
Mary, every one of her, all around us, awaits our answer.