Isaiah 7:10-16No angelic choirs; no visiting shepherds; not even a dramatic journey to another city under the harsh lash of an occupying power or visits from a heavenly messenger. Instead, the most human of stories: a pregnant girl, a worried man, and something learned in a dream. God does not intrude here; God steals in.
7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,
7:11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
7:12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.
7:13 Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
7:15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
7:16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-1980:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,
1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,
1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
1:7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took 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.
1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
1:20 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.
1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
1:23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Even the birth itself is unremarkable. Joseph remains chaste with Mary "until she had borne him a son; and he named him Jesus." That's the clinching remark, the end of the story for Matthew's audience. To this day, our laws understand that the mother of the child is obvious; but the father of the child is still, presumptively, a legal relationship. Who is the father of this child? The man the mother is married to, answers the law. A "rebuttable presumption," but a presumption nevertheless. In Joseph's day that presumption was sealed by the father when he named the child. Doing so was not a casual act of patrimony; it was acknowledgment that the child was yours, and that you were responsible as the father. It was an act of acceptance. In that simple clause, Matthew tells us that Joseph took Jesus, for all the world to know, as his own. He accepted the dream.
It could have been a dream that murdered sleep, of course. Angels are disruptive and scary: not because they come trailing clouds of glory or perform awesome deeds in our sight, but because they are messengers, angelion, and only the rich and powerful employ messengers, and the messages they bring are seldom words of comfort and joy. For the rich and powerful to take notice of the lowly and humble, is seldom a good thing for the lowly and humble. And soon enough, Joseph will have to take his family and flee to Egypt to protect them from Herod, and all the families of Bethlehem will pay for this birth. No good deed goes unpunished. When the rich and powerful take notice of you, untarnished good cannot be expected to follow. The rich and powerful can be thieves, too. But this dream brings quiet and reassurance, and Joseph accepts this message by accepting his wife's first son. Good St. Joseph, indeed.
We know about dreams that murder sleep. Left blogistan has been recording them for years now, with a dreadful and relentless consistency. Consider the news today, and it seems God has stolen out, not in: New Orleans going further and further into memory as nothing changes. Pakistan, a fiscal black hole. Kentucky, where 1 in 10 people don't have teeth, because they lack access to dental care. We are better people than this. But why aren't we better? Now we know J. Edgar Hoover wanted exactly what we now have: the suspension of habeas corpus, the mass jailing of people considered "security threats." We were a better people then: we'd just fought a second world war, we faced a new threat, a nuclear threat, from an enemy who had just been, even if only of necessity, an ally. Hoover was scared, but we were a better people than that. Why aren't we better now?
Joseph, no doubt, was scared; and that fear was as real and potentially damaging to him as any fear some of us grew up with under the "nuclear shadow." Joseph was undoubtedly scared, but what reassured him? A dream; simply a dream. What wondrous love is this? Good St. Joseph, indeed.
The argument today, the topic du jour, always a day late and a dollar short, is that religion in politics is the problem. Only now is the influence of religion rising to the top of the national debate, which is a sure sign the influence of religion is ebbing, that it is going away. Once again we fear "God" is intruding, when already God is stealing away.
In fact, the most frustrating thing about God is the center of the Christmas story: God refuses to take charge. God refuses to come sweeping down on clouds of glory in an undeniable presence that would leave even Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hithchens beggared for explanation. God refuses to appear in overwhelming majesty and sweep all before Him and wipe away all resistance and establish a Pax Christiana. God, instead, steals our dreams, and replaces them with reality; a reality too wonderful to grasp, a reality impossible to accept or believe.
Good St. Joseph, indeed.
Soon enough, in Matthew's version, the Holy Family will be fleeing, not defying, earthly powers. As Rufus Wainwright will say of that trip, "And they were each one quite odd/A mensch, a virgin, and a god." We shouldn't lose the strangeness of that journey. We shouldn't lose the strangeness of this story. "Not. one. inch.," we say, to bolster ourselves to fight the good fight. God gave more than inches, Matthew says. God gave miles, and leagues, and whole countries up. The journey from Bethelehm to Jerusalem is now considered a short one. In Jesus' day, it was a long trip, and an arduous one. Imagine, then, the trip to Egypt, where you know no one. Jesus, says Matthew, began life as a political refugee, fleeing the violence of a man who thought this baby threatened his throne. How different is that from the children in Gitmo today?
We are more sensible people than this; but why aren't we more sensible? God, it seems, has stolen away again. Why do we let God do that? how do we prepare for the coming of a god who moves like a thief, and takes from us the certainty that we need? How are we supposed to prove anything from stories of dreams and miracles and new stars and massacres?
Maybe we need to take the long view. Isaiah's prophecy about the young woman who will bear a child, which the Septuagint and Matthew make miraculous by changing "young woman" to "virgin", ends on a note we little notice in our rush to the manger: "For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted." This is not a prophecy meant to come true, in other words, in the lifetime of King Ahaz. Nor is it necessarily a sign of miracles being done. It is a sign that life will go on, however, and that God's justice will prevail, because the powerlessness of justice is greater than the power of injustice, and the powerlessness of God is greater than the power of human desires. Long after the "two kings you are in dread" of have lost all power, a young woman will bear a child, as young women have been doing since time immemorial, and that child will bring new hope to the nation, not by being Samson or David, but by refusing evil and choosing good almost from the beginning. Won't this child be the Messiah? Perhaps; but there is a history of prophets and children with prophetic names, so perhaps "Immanuel" is not a designation of being, but a symbol of hope and faith. Perhaps that is all we ever get: faith, if we can claim it; hope, if we can accept it.
Advent prepares us to hope again, and it is coincident entirely with the winter solstice. We don't need assurance that light will return to our days, anymore than we put up Christmas lights because we are secretly afraid of the dark. We need preparation, though; our souls need to be stirred and rested, worked and allowed to be fallow, so that what is coming is not the end of parties and work and a brief respite before the next year starts everything over. Advent prepares us to see and accept and rejoice in the glorious impossible, in the power of powerlessness: that a helpless child is our greatest hope, that even God must flee the powers of this world in order to prevail, that retreat and withdrawal and a careful kind of secrecy, the movements of the thief, are sometimes the best plans of all. Advent prepares us for God with us, among us, like us. The first thing we have to do is to be ready, with the shepherds, with the outcast and outlaws and least regarded, to seek out the child in the manger and know who it is; and the second thing we have to do, is to be ready to protect it: like the Magi, who in a dream are told not to return to Herod; like Joseph, told in a dream to trust the messenger and take the family far, far away. Which makes Joseph like Abram, trusting a voice which tells him to take his family and travel, and the journey will be safe, the destination sure. A mensch, a virgin, and a god, refugees again by the action of the state, by the compulsion of the world. Why does this story never wear out? Because it is our story, and we see it again and again and again, every day now for at least 2000 years; and this time, we are asked to be ready, to prepare and to help, when the time comes, when we are asked.
Soon, and very soon....