Homily for Advent 4, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Gospel Text: Matthew 1:18-25
When I moved from being a practicing social worker to being trained as an academic researcher, I was told that I needed to develop a one-sentence elevator speech anyone could hear and understand. After a decade of working with the complexities of people’s lives, I needed to confine my intellectual curiosity to one sentence. Just one. I think it took me most of that first year of my doctoral studies to do it, but finally I landed on the description I have used for the past fifteen: “I study ways to improve women’s health and mental health during and around the time of pregnancy.”
At one of the first professional conferences I attended, I gave a talk where I used my elevator speech to define my area of study. As I concluded my presentation, a hand went up in the crowd. It was the first of many times that my well-defined area of scholarship would be immediately challenged by the question, “But what about the dads?”
Given today’s Gospel lesson, I can’t help but feel a bit like I always do when asked that question. On one hand, it’s a completely legitimate consideration: birth experiences are always more complex than just the person birthing the baby. On the other hand, I readily acknowledge that I might indeed have a bias: I have a particular interest in understanding the experience of mothers because of their role as physical bearers of life into this world in all the ways that happens, and all the emotional and psychological complexity that accompanies that. My experience also suggests that there’s someone in every situation who has the most to lose, and in my field of study, that vulnerable person is often the mother.
When I give research talks now, I’m quick to point out…early and often…that I actually care about all partners and participants in a birth experience. But, I am especially drawn in and moved by the experiences of mothers. Mothers may often be the most vulnerable and least powerful people in the story; but understanding and responding to their needs changes everyone’s story.
So, it’s probably not surprising that I’ve always felt drawn to Mary, whose informed yes-saying to God’s call upon her life put her almost immediately in an incredibly precarious position within her personal, social and cultural context. And I will also admit that this maternal and child health researcher loves Advent for the very particular and specific reason that each season we, like Mary, must confront our vulnerability and step faithfully into a fuller understanding of what exactly it means not to be afraid, to trust the Holy Spirit with wild abandon, and to make room to birth Christ anew in our own lives, and in the world.
Sometimes, I hear people wonder why Advent matters, or even whether we should bother holding open this space of expectant waiting anymore when culturally, it’s been Christmas all around us since Thanksgiving. And sometimes, people still ask, “what about the dads?”
And to both questions, today I say: I’m glad you asked.
And so it is that the birth of Jesus, in the Gospel according to Matthew, happened like this. Mary, betrothed to Joseph and living with her family of origin, was pregnant. In an assertion of faith which then and 2,000 years later we still profess in our creeds, she proclaimed that the child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The practical partner in this birth story, though, was Joseph whom we are told was a righteous man. As was the right and privilege of any man in his social position at that time, he could have chosen to publicly end their betrothal on grounds of infidelity and in doing so, sealed Mary’s fate as an unfaithful and therefore, effectively unmarriageable woman. That action on his part would likely have relegated her to poverty, living either as a forced dependent of her birth family or as an outcast. Mary was vulnerable in her pregnancy, vulnerable in her person, vulnerable in her social status, and vulnerable in her relationship.
But Joseph was a righteous man. While he knew the social conventions of his time and was likely encouraged to follow them, he had thought things through and determined a way to privately and quietly send Mary away so that her pregnancy wasn’t exposed. It was quite a progressive and open-minded thing for him to do, actually. As the Gospel writer attests: this was the plan he had thought through and decided to follow, because he was righteous. Human, virtuous, law-abiding righteousness.
Let me just pause here and say: rest assured that Matthew’s version of the nativity of Jesus is probably not going to be portrayed in a children’s Christmas pageant any time soon!
Back to the story, though. Joseph, having settled on his righteous plan, settled himself down to sleep. Once his mind was at rest, a messenger (ἄγγελος) of God, visited him in a dream and told him not to be afraid. The message was not only to fearlessly embrace Mary as his wife, but to accept this child and name…and therefore claim…this child as his own, with full recognition not of his own paternity, but of God’s intention for this child’s life. The name to be given was Jesus, derived from the name of the patriarch we in English translation call Joshua. Joseph, like Mary, had received the same divine message of a life-altering truth: this child coming into your life is Immanuel: God with us.
I have always wanted to know more about the thoughts in Mary’s mind throughout her pregnancy and as she cared for the infant Jesus. But like the hand waving in the audience, I find myself wishing we knew more about this dad, too. Maybe if we heard some of Joseph’s words, or could get inside his thoughts we could hear and see a bit of what the Good News felt like in his own expression and experience. I wish we knew how the angelic interruption bearing God’s invitation challenged his sense of safety. I wish we could hear the words of justice and advocacy that Joseph used to describe to his family the new course of action that his faith in God emboldened him to embark upon. What we do have in this story, though, is a knowledge of what Joseph does. Righteous, practical, and faithful Joseph enacted without hesitation not his own plan, but what he was called upon by God to do.
We know through his actions that Joseph also gave his full consent to participate in this life-altering and counter-cultural narrative, to move from security to vulnerability and in doing so, to become a true partner in the revealing of God’s incarnate love for all of God’s people.
The profound faith and courage of these human parents, Mary and Joseph, transform our understanding of what it means to live in faithful expectation of the divine. In our Christian journey through Advent, we are living the story of God’s incarnate love for humanity retrospectively: we’ve already travelled the road to Bethlehem; we’ve seen the star; we’ve heard the chorus of the heavenly host and we are circling back around to retell the holy story to each other as we do so beautifully, year after year. But the very human parents in this very human story do not have our experience. They simply have their call.
Mary and Joseph each had a dream; a choice; a reconciliation of their own human desires with God’s plan. In this narrative of the incarnation, they each independently say yes to God’s plan, and with God’s help they enter the uncertain journey unfolding before their feet, step by step.
Whether we see this story through the eyes of Mary or the eyes of Joseph, today’s Gospel lesson gives us a reason to pause in our lives of faith and ponder God’s call upon our own lives, a call to which we have also responded repeatedly this Advent that we will pursue, with God’s help:
- Do we find ourselves making plans out of our own human, law-abiding righteousness?
- Are we awake and attuned to hearing the messengers who offer up what God asks of us, even if it makes us vulnerable and causes us to challenge our fears?
- Are we willing to name and claim what God has given us to do as the work of our lives?
You see, both the Mom and the Dad in today’s Gospel lesson are holding out to us the story of their lives, their trust, their vulnerability, their head-on encounter with their human fears and their willingness to defy the prevailing social norms of their time in order to embody the work God has called them to do. When I read the stories of these young parents, it activates the social worker and the pastor in me: I yearn to accompany their vulnerability, to console them with the knowledge that all shall be well, to remind them that God is with them.
But then I realize, they knew. They already knew. By the time the story of Jesus’ birth unfolded and revealed God’s love for the world in the form of a tiny child, Mary and Joseph held in the flesh what they already knew in their souls. In spite of all social and cultural evidence to the contrary, they had come to know the transforming and life-altering intention of the God of Love to join with and be with God’s people. That is the Good News that Mary and Joseph hold out for us today by word and example. No other elevator speech needed. Joseph, like Mary, had been given all he needed to know to act and move with faith through the journey of his life, to the glory of God:
Immanuel. God is with us.
In these final expectant days as we await the Christ Child, may our hearts like those of Mary and Joseph be open to welcome the incarnate love of God, who dwells and abides with us, forever. Amen.