Image: The dream of St Joseph. Bernardino (Bernardino de Scapis) Luini (c.1480-1532)
Advent IV’s gospel spiritual panorama opens upon Matthew’s version of the events leading to the birth of Jesus. For most of us, our sense of the nativity narrative emerges from merging Luke and Matthew together to give us the typical manger scene depicted in countless churches and nativity plays. In doing so we miss the significance of each Evangelists distinctive and strikingly different portrayal of events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Luke’s focus is on Mary, his birth narrative is Mary’s story – depicting a birth taking place in primitive farmyard conditions surrounded by sheep and cattle and witnessed by common shepherds – representative of those on the margins of society – and of course let’s not forget the angels.
Matthew’s version of events gives us Joseph’s story – the story of Jesus’ birth told from Joseph’s perspective -no manger, no shepherds, no cattle or sheep – a birth witnessed not by common people but by foreign emissaries in the persons of three Magi – representatives of the wider world’s homage to the infant king of the Jews. Matthew’s angel appears not to Mary as in Luke’s account, but to Joseph in a dream.
Having located Jesus’ identity within the long genealogy stretching back through Jewish mythological time to Abraham, Matthew’s intensely Jewish story places the birth of Jesus within the turbulent political context of 1st-century Palestine. Here we have all the ingredients for a tense political drama – a brutal ruler in Herod the Great – the puppet of Roman occupation, whose murderous intent drives the Holy Family into exile as political asylum seekers. The Holy Family escapes, but every other year-old male child born in the region of Bethlehem is slaughtered as Herod, alerted by the indiscretion of the Magi, endeavors to neutralize Isaiah’s prophecy of the birth of a rival king.
Matthew’s is a rich narrative, one that sets the birth of Jesus within a political context completely familiar to us today in a world where literally millions of fathers and mothers with young children are daily forced to undertake the perils and dangers as refugees escaping in fear for their lives. Perhaps the greater significance to be drawn from Matthew’s birth narrative lies in an exploration of the political and humanitarian themes buried within his version of events – perhaps a fruitful exploration for a Christmas Eve sermon.
Matthew’s is an approach to the Jesus story very much from within the perspective of the Jewish patriarchal world view of the men-in-charge. I think my unease with this feature of his approach is quite personal. As a gay man I learned early to fear the power of the patriarchy and to be deeply suspicious of the presentation of scripture through the exclusive lens of the men-in-change – in whose worldview there was no place for someone like me.
Richard Swanson is – at least to my way of thinking – a delightfully provocative biblical commentator who never misses an opportunity to take the patriarchal voice – that is – the traditional interpretation of scripture from the restrictive perspective of the men-in-charge – down a peg or two. Swanson coins the delicious phrase Holy Baritones to describe scripture’s patriarchal voice. My not infrequent uneasiness with Matthew’s voice is that at times he seems to me to epitomize the role of section leader in the Holy Baritone chorus.
Matthew, having spent the first 17 verses in his 25 verse first chapter establishing Jesus’ identity at the heart of Jewish patriarchal transmission, finally gets around to telling us about Jesus’ birth at verse 18 – by announcing to us that:
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.
Was found to be is a grammatical structure known as the divine passive. It’s a way of telling us that so and so happened while obscuring causality. For the Hebrew writers it was a way of showing that something had happened by the hand of God without referring to the name that could not be written or uttered. Matthew does make clear that the hidden hand of action in Mary’s pregnancy is God’s. But unlike Luke’s portrayal of a direct encounter between Mary and Gabriel leaving Mary with the chief agency in her decision making – the thrust of Matthew’s narrative is that Mary’s pregnancy has been discovered i.e., shamefully exposed – but we are not told by whom. Matthew clearly sees Mary as having no agency, reserving all agency in decisions to Joseph.
Matthew presents Joseph in a predicament. His reputation through no fault of his own is endangered by this turn of events. His solution is to become resolved to quietly break off the engagement. Ah, what a mensch! But here’s my problem with Matthew’s Joseph-focused version of events. In a religious society with draconian laws against sex before marriage, the risk of public disgrace relates not to Mary’s but rather, to Joseph’s predicament. His, is the fear of being publicly disgraced. Why do I conclude this? Because if the truth got out the risk to Mary was not public disgrace but being stoned to death – in the first instance by her father – and if he could not bring himself to do the deed then by another male relative – an uncle, or brother, or male cousin conveniently waiting in the wings. The reality of honor killing is a nasty detail that the Holy Baritone voice skips over by silence.
So how is Joseph to be extricated from the prospect of public disgrace? Matthew rescues Joseph through an angel appearing to him in a dream – telling him not to be afraid. Afraid of what we might ask – if not reputational disgrace. The angel instructs Joseph to go through with the marriage because it’s really God who has caused Mary’s pregnancy. On waking, Joseph, with his mind now reassured against his fear of social opprobrium, does as the angel had commanded him.
We might expect Matthew to end his chapter here. Joseph the mensch, rescues his betrothed from calamity by marrying her. But as cheerleader for the Holy Baritone voice Matthew is not done yet. He rather tellingly – to my mind at least – mentions that while Joseph married Mary, he declined to consummate the marriage until after the [troublesome?] child was born.
Why does Matthew feel the need to tell us this? Well, one of the pervading themes of the Holy Baritone voice is an over preoccupation with genital penetration. Inappropriate penetration – that is – who puts what where – provokes the patriarchal fear of spiritual contamination. As today’s conservative obsession with the restriction of women’s reproductive and homosexual and transgender rights continues to demonstrate –this preoccupation continues a story older than time.
Let’s listen again to Matthew’s voice:
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and named him Jesus.