I am told that whenever the Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean met a new person, his first question was not, “What do you do? or “Where do you live? but “Who are your people?” In the tight-knit community of the Western Isles, that might not be too difficult a question, but if he had ever asked me that, I would have a hard time knowing what to say because, like many Americans, I have so many different people, from many different places all over Europe: Sweden, Norway, Cornwall, France, Germany, even a few from Scotland — and possibly others I haven’t found out about.
The Israelite people were a lot like Sorley Maclean. They needed to know who your people were, and, especially, who your father was, and his father and his father. We can find a number of genealogies in the Old Testament, but the most significant ones, for us, are the two very long genealogies of Jesus given to us by Matthew and Luke. One of the first things you would notice, if you compared them, is18 the possibly worrying fact that they are not the same, not even close. Luke’s is much longer, and takes us all the way back to Adam, while Matthew’s only takes us back to Abraham, and seems to include a lot of gaps. Many of the names are different and, strikingly, even the name of Joseph’s father is different in the two lists: Jacob and Heli My study Bible suggests that this perhaps was Luke’s way of getting around the fact that Hebrew genealogies were always exclusively male and perhaps the name Heli, which Luke uses, was not Joseph’s father, but his father-in-law, thus enabling Luke, a bit sneakily, to trace Jesus’ line through Mary rather than through Joseph.
Sadly, other reliable sources I consulted suggested that this is fanciful, so you can probably disregard it; nevertheless, it is obvious that Luke gives Mary a much higher profile than Matthew does. Today is the Sunday we think about the Annunciation, and because this year, our lectionary is following Matthew’s Gospel, today’s annunciation is not the one we usually think of: the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, but an annunciation to Joseph, in a dream.
You may have seen, several years ago now, a series on television chronicling the birth of Jesus. I thought it was very moving, though not altogether scriptural. In that version of the story, Joseph was not nearly so easily convinced as he is in Matthew’s Gospel, and it is only at the moment of Jesus’ birth that he is reconciled to Mary. Not a dry eye in the house — our house, anyway! You can see that it would have been a hard thing to accept, but necessary, if Mary and her child were to be protected from the harsh judgement Jewish law would have meted out if he had rejected her. We don’t hear much more about Joseph beyond the story of Jesus in the Temple, which only Luke gives us, and it seems likely that he had died by the time Jesus had grown up, but there are hints that Jesus followed Joseph’s profession, and a number of legends about Jesus’ boyhood suggest that Joseph took his role as father and teacher seriously.
But, important as Joseph is, and much as I feel I ought to stick with Matthew, I don’t think we can let this Sunday go by without thinking about Luke’s version of the story, too, not least because it is so familiar: A strange visitor arrives at Mary’s house and tells her that she’s going to have a baby, and this baby is not going to be the result of her impending marriage to Joseph, but the result of an ‘overshadowing’ by the Holy Spirit, whatever that might mean. What would the neighbours say?!
If we really examine this story we can begin to see that Mary’s world is actually being turned upside down.
So often in the Bible the words “Do not be afraid” are followed by a challenge to embrace something new or uncomfortable, and, as I suggested, given the attitudes at the time concerning pregnancy in unmarried women, Mary had every right to be utterly terrified; what was the rest of her life going to be like? There might not even have been much of life left, as the law said such women could be stoned. And yet the message is encouraging.
With the angel’s message comes a promise from God: a promise that Mary has found favour, her son will be called “the Son of the Most High”; he will be given the throne of King David and will reign over an endless kingdom for ever. But we know, as Mary could only dimly see, that God was coming into the world in a way that would make him accessible to all people, not as a mighty and powerful warrior king, not at the centre of earthly power, but weak, fragile and vulnerable as the newborn child of a poor couple, from a fairly unremarkable town, in a far-away corner of the Roman Empire.
We are so bombarded with the story at this time of year that we may forget to notice the immense courage and faith of Mary, a miracle in itself. Mary, in her darkest hour, hears God’s call and becomes the embodiment of Isaiah’s prophecy that God will appear on earth as an infant: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Mary was afraid, but the light was coming to cast out the darkness.
The other thing we might not notice is the significance of the response Mary gives to the angel once she has had a moment to think things through. We are used to hearing it as a response of humble submission: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” But the word Mary uses in the Latin version of the Gospel is ‘fiat ‘, which means ‘let it happen’.
And in the Latin version of the first creation story in the book Genesis, ‘fiat’ is the word God uses in order that everything in the universe might come into being: let there be light and darkness, dry land and seas, fish and birds and horses and red squirrels and people. Let it happen. Let it be.
Mary, as she utters her ‘fiat’, ushers in the new creation. Mary’s ‘fiat’ is the gateway to the coming on earth of the Kingdom of God, the time when God can truly look on his creation and pronounce it ‘very good’. But it won’t come without pain for Mary and for her son. Mary will have to endure her lovely baby boy grow into a man she finds it hard to understand, a man who will leave home in order to travel around the countryside, perhaps rarely coming home to see her, whom, indeed, she will have to go and seek out, and when she finds him he will suggest that the people he is teaching, and who believe his words, are more important than his family… Or does he?
Are we to imagine that at that encounter his words to his mother are not as harsh as they seem, but that Mary is to be included amongst those who hear his word and believe it? I would like to think so. Matthew and Luke tell us that both Mary and Joseph believed the message they were given by the angel Gabriel. They played their part by nurturing, protecting and teaching him during his early years.
As I suggested, Joseph does not appear to have survived long enough to have to watch the boy he had welcomed and raised die an agonising death, or to witness his resurrection, but Mary did, and she stood faithfully by him while so many others of his followers ran away in fear. “Do not be afraid, Mary; do not be afraid, Joseph. And they weren’t. And we, who have become members of Jesus’ family too must be equally courageous. Now, for us, the message of the angel is enormously relevant.
The season of Advent, as has been said a number of times already this year, is a time of waiting. At first sight, it seems as if this time of waiting is a mere four weeks, a mere twenty-five windows in an Advent calendar. But we have only to look at the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, to realise how long the people of God waited for the Messiah, and we have only to think how far in the future we are from that birth, and how much we still wait and long for his coming again to realise the truth that the coming of the Kingdom of God is already and not yet. Jesus is the light of the world, and yet our world can still seem very dark.
And so, we, too, need to be courageous. Listen to the angel’s words: Do not be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary as your wife; Do not be afraid, Mary to bear this child.
Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”. Trust in God as Joseph and Mary did; believe that the light is coming, that, in fact, it is here, and, for as long,
as you need it, it will never go out. Believe, even in the face of supposedly insurmountable odds; have faith that you are not alone, for God himself has been, and will be, born among us, not above us, mighty and powerful, but down on earth beside us.
And even closer than that. For Christ is not just born of Mary; he does not belong just to the family of Joseph. The kingdom of God, tiny as a mustard seed, tiny as an embryo, needed their consent to begin, but in order to continue to grow, it needs the consent of every Christian. As my favourite Christmas carol puts it:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.