Featured image is Hope by Ferdinand Feys
A brief recap
And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent. In this Advent’s preaching, Linda+ and I have taken pains to paint the fuller picture of expectation – of hope – of the tensions experienced in waiting and the easy confusion we make between the act of hoping and the object of our hope.
Hoping is a verb, or as my primary school English teacher Mrs. Doake used to say, a doing word. Hoping is an action we perform and while it has in its sights a particular outcome, T.S. Eliot warned us about conflating the action of hoping with the object hoped for.
It’s a paradox. Hoping always will connect in our minds to a desired outcome, that’s how our minds work. But it’s not the realization of the outcome that matters, it’s the action of open-ended hoping that then enables God to provide the outcome God intends. For the poverty of our imaginations, the risk adverse quality of so much of our hoping – Eliot’s to hope for the wrong thing – cannot begin to comprehend the height, the length, the breadth, the depth that is in the mind of God.
A member, over lunch this last week said to me: Gee: I was really depressed when I heard you tell us not to have hope. Hope is all I have. I was stunned. Because of course this was not what I intended to convey at all. So, to clarify. Hoping IS ALL WE HAVE. In other words, the courage to have hope, to face life every day with a hopeful attitude IS – ALL WE HAVE. Whether the object – the outcome of our hoping is realizable or not is in a way beside the point. We perform hope – and in the action of hoping, the attitude of being hopeful – the future is brought into the present where things begin to change. To paraphrase Alice Miller, a psychoanalyst and artist and another of my 20th-century heroes We [become] who we have been waiting for.
The birth of Jesus is act one in a two-act drama. In a few days we will bring all our focus to bear on this first act. While still in Advent however, we need to remind ourselves that the focus of our hope is really on the second act in the drama. The messiah has come, but this is not what we are waiting for. The birth of Jesus inaugurates the messianic age, but it does not bring it to completion. It is for the messiah’s return that we eagerly wait. The nature of his return will be to remake heaven and earth and put right all that which is presently wrong. This is the vision that shapes the action of hoping. We, in the meantime must work tirelessly for the righting of wrong as we prepare for the in-breaking of God’s justice.
And so, we come to the last Sunday in Advent when we hear the crucial beginning to Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. There are two birth narratives, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. The key difference between them lies not only in the details of how the event is described, but in the attitude and theological worldview of the two Evangelists – a difference that will surface again and again as each constructs his biography of Jesus.
Luke’s story focuses on Mary, her feelings and reactions. Luke describes how God speaks directly to Mary through the Archangel Gabriel who announces to her an event about to happen. Gabriel declares: do not be afraid, Mary; for you will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The important point here is that in Luke, God has a high view of women. Gabriel comes and announces God’s intention to Mary for her to conceive in the form of an invitation. Nothing more happens until Mary accepts the invitation. Heaven and earth, in breath-taking silence wait – there’s that pesky waiting again. Heaven and earth wait with bated breath until Mary proclaims, I am the servant of the Lord, be to me, as God intends. Invitation accepted. God and Mary are partners in this enterprise.
In Matthew, the same event is quite differently described. Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant. So, the conception has already taken place and Mary seems not to have had any real choice in the matter. She has now been found out – being pregnant out of wedlock now places her in great danger from the self-righteous wrath of the patriarchy – the great men who decreed that a woman found to be in Mary’s predicament must be stoned to death at the door of her house with her Father throwing the first stone. It’s somewhat chilling to be reminded here of the Mosaic sanction for honor killing!
It’s Joseph, not Mary, who is for Matthew the key actor in this story. His is a story of primogeniture – the passing down of legitimacy through the male line. Matthew focuses on Joseph because Matthew’s concern is to refute appearances and to demonstrate Jesus’s legitimacy as a true descendant of David and therefore is the coming one long expected and predicted by the prophet Isaiah: a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel – God is with us.
Tradition presents Joseph as a kindly hero, a saintly and gentle man who wants to spare Mary from a fate worse than death. So, he intends to put Mary away quietly – as so many fathers of daughters found to be pregnant out of wedlock have done throughout history. Joseph is but a kindly version of the patriarchal fear of uncontrolled female sexuality; a fear it seems that we in 21st-century America we are still not emancipated from.
But for Mary there is no fate in store for her that could possibly be worse than death. No, the fate worse than death is the potential damage to Joseph’s reputation – to be disgraced and still be alive. Joseph intends to protect his reputation – that is until God intervenes.
God sends an unnamed angel, let’s call him Gabriel, for Gabriel was believed to be God’s messenger angel and Luke names him directly. Gabriel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him Mary’s child is actually God’s child – so don’t be such a klutz, just marry her! Gabriel reminds Joseph that if he has any doubt – to go back and read the prophet Isaiah.
Tradition favors Joseph for making an honest woman of Mary. Making an honest woman is an interesting term, which like the term wedlock – locking down a piece of human property tantalizes to take me in a different direction. But to stick to my theme – a better perspective might be that Joseph redeems himself by marrying Mary. He offers himself as a willing participant in God’s plan for salvation and it’s for that faithfulness that we honor him.
But Matthew can’t quite let up on the patriarchal fixation of women as sexually dangerous. Thus, he has to tell us that Joseph preserves his moral purity by refraining from consummating the marriage until this ambiguous incident is brought to completion with the birth of the child.
Matthew’s narrative strikes current alarm bells in our society. The prophet Isaiah named the child Emmanu-el – God is with us. God is with us in the faces of poor women having been deprived of control over their reproductive rights by holy men, or in the faces of women as the victims of male sexual predation. God is with us in the faces of the children consigned to poverty and the myriad social disadvantages that afflict many single parent families.
Matthew’s narrative continues. After the birth, God warns Joseph to flee with his wife and child -narrowly escaping the wrath of the genocidal Herod, who in a desperate attempt to find Jesus decrees the slaughter of all two-year old boys in the region of Bethlehem. God is with us in the face of the child separated at the border from her desperate parents who driven by fear of violence and death – like Joseph and Mary are only seeking the relative safety of our Egypt. God is with us in the haunted faces of the women and children corralled in the world’s increasingly numerous ghettos: the Syrian province of Idib, Gaza, the Burmese-Bangladesh border, the detention camps ringing the Mediterranean Sea, Xinjiang’s Uighur detention camps – the examples roll on.
In these days of online retail, you probably don’t go to the mall for much of your Christmas preparations anymore. But were you to – you might hear the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 when it was not yet clear how, or when, the War might end. I’m grateful to Richard Swanson for mentioning this song. The final verse concludes the song with:
Through the yearsHugh Martin Lyrics, Ralph Blane Music.
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
God is with us means that we have a God who is not simply with us but has promised to muddle through with us. Are we not coming to the end of quite a year for muddling through? God is with us and hope is all we have!