January 30, 2012 / Praxis
Flannery O’Connor insists that good fiction must be grounded in place; in this essay, Andrew W. E. Carlson discovers that the same can be said for church.
“Tell me the story of when I was born.” This is a request that my adult son Evan invariably makes of me whenever we get together: “Tell me the story of when I was born,” he always says.
And so I go through the whole story—the town and the house where we lived before his birth, the day or two leading up to that moment, and then the day of the birth. I tell him of the drive to the hospital, the helpful and not-so-helpful hospital staff, the length of my labor, the thoughts and feelings I had during the hard wait for him to arrive.
All of these things, all of these trivial, important things, build toward the big moment—the moment Evan appears in the flesh, the moment his parents behold and hold him for the first time, the moment he is first called by his name.
“Tell me the story of when I was born.” Evan’s request, of course, is not just to hear the facts surrounding his birth. Rather, he wishes to hear again about relationships and identity, to hear how the beginning informs the present and the future. And for me, the storyteller, it’s yet another chance to tell Evan and anyone else who will listen about how I see the world and what’s important to me.
* * *
“Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way”—this is how Matthew begins the story of the Incarnation (Matt. 1:18, ESV). And Matthew’s phrasing of it makes us believe, perhaps, that we’re about to hear a detailed telling of Jesus’s birth in the way that Luke might tell it. But Matthew, we will discover, is a different kind of writer than Luke. Luke wants to tell us the story through the experiences of Mary, a young woman without status who carries the son of God within her, and the shepherds, those living in the fields who will be the first to hear of the birth. Conversely, Matthew wants to tell us about Joseph, a man whose goodness and righteousness take him far, but not all the way, as he prepares for the coming of something completely new: Emmanuel, “God with us.”
But I get ahead of myself.
The evangelist who composed the Gospel of Matthew was probably a Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe. The historical evidence suggests that he wrote between 80 and 90 CE and addressed his work to a community in conflict: Jewish Christians who were being pushed out of larger Jewish communities. These larger Jewish communities were led by Pharisees, rabbis who assumed leadership of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.
And so Matthew is at pains to place his own religious community squarely within its Jewish heritage and to portray a Jesus whose Jewish identity is beyond doubt. He therefore begins his gospel by tracing Jesus’s genealogy. He could have gotten away with tracing Jesus back to King David, but Matthew takes no chances and traces Jesus’s lineage all the way back to Abraham. For Matthew, Jesus is a Jew.
It’s within this context, then, that the focus on Joseph appears in Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth. Joseph embodies the best parts of the Jewish tradition, a tradition that was all about keeping the law as a way to live with God. The law was a tried-and-true pattern of actions that expressed a Jew’s closeness to God and right relationship with others.
In Matthew 1:18–25 we read that during the time of his engagement to Mary, Joseph discovers that she is pregnant. Joseph knows the baby is not his, and he knows that Jewish law would find Mary guilty of adultery, an act that can be punished with death and that is always punishable by shame. The law mandated that Joseph divorce her. However, because Joseph is a righteous man, he also understands another part of his Jewish heritage: he understands that the law is to be tempered with mercy. And so instead of exposing Mary to a public divorce, as the reading says, he decides to dismiss her quietly, in a way that would reduce public inquiry into what has happened.
But as we see, even law tempered with mercy isn’t dramatic enough for Joseph to help usher in Emmanel who is “God with us.” Something astonishing is needed, something that goes beyond the old patterns of action that Joseph knows so well, something that can only come from the shadowy, subterranean world of dreams. It is in the night, then, away from the daylight world of the law, past even the late-in-the-day tempering impulse of mercy, that an alternative explanation of what is happening comes. And it’s through this dream that God reaches out and grasps this good and righteous man, this one who is the best that the tried-and-true tradition can offer.
An angel appears to Joseph and speaks the same words that we will hear on Christmas in Luke’s gospel: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to do something outrageous in order to bring to fruition something that the law and the prophets have yearned for, do not be afraid to do something that pitches you past any mercy you can imagine—do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt. 1:19, paraphrase). This is a striking moment in Joseph’s life; all of what he knows—his life, his religion, his ethics—is being questioned by an angel in a dream, and that angel is inviting him to forsake all that knowledge and understanding to participate in a larger story.
I believe that we’re all a little like Joseph; we all limit ourselves by our tried-and-true ways of doing things. We each have our own ways of dealing with personal, spiritual, and professional matters, our own ways of moving through this demanding season of the year. Perhaps there is a voice we’re already dimly aware of from a dark, subterranean, and mysterious place. Perhaps it’s a voice we’re trying to avoid, a voice that is asking us to go beyond those tried-and-true ways in order to surrender more fully to God and to assist in the coming of Emmanuel “God with us” in our own lives and in the life of the world.
But what will going beyond those tried-and-true ways mean? What things that we wish we could dismiss quietly might we be asked to make our own? “Do not be afraid,” the angel is saying to you and to me about making these mysterious things our own. “Do not be afraid.”
It seems that throughout the Bible God is always to trying to tell us this—“Do not be afraid, Abraham, when I ask you to leave your homeland and to travel to a new place that will be your own. Do not be afraid, Moses, for I will be with you when you, a slave, speak to Pharaoh, the king of the Egyptians. Do not be afraid of any evil, David, for the Lord will be your shepherd no matter where you are. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God” (Luke 1:28, paraphrase). Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to act.
And this brings us back to Joseph. In Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth, Joseph is asked to make a leap, to take an action that goes beyond how he would normally understand the law, and in listening to the angel and taking this leap of action, he is doing what some see as quintessentially Jewish. About this, Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his deeds, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”
In these last few days of Advent, a season of the dark, the subterranean, and the mysterious, a season when we need to retrace the stories of new birth and the return of light, may you and I hear a word from that dark place, a word that banishes all fear and encourages us to take one tiny leap of action to draw nearer to something we do not fully understand. Emmanuel is God with us: do not be afraid.
 Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 283.
The Rev Canon Melissa Skelton is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, and Canon for Congregational Development for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. She teaches homiletics at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.