Christmas is a collage!
Fourth Sunday of Advent. Fr Piers Linley preaches on the obedience of St Joseph.
St Luke gives us an account of the origins and early life of Jesus: there is an annunciation to Mary by an angel. Joseph is mentioned more than once but never in centre stage.
St Matthew gives a narrative quite independently of Luke: there is an annunciation to Joseph but in a dream. Joseph is the foreground, Mary rather more in the background.
The Christmas crib scene adds further elements. Shepherds, the ox — often on its knees in worship — the ass, sometimes an assorted collection of other livestock. (One cartoon I have includes of all things three portly pigs! — plus several scrawny chickens!)
Wise men — how many we don’t know — three is a deduction from the three gifts. Their camels — somewhat grumpy! A dusting of snow!? Angels singing above. The wandering star. A biblical star, not a coincidental supernova!
Then there is the commercial clutter and exploitation of the feast to distort our reactions. Presents and holly and Christmas tree etc…
Christmas is a collage!
The money-making aspect aside, the purpose of having such a collage is to pay the greatest honour to the newborn Jesus. The Word of God become man and dwells henceforth among us. However, there is a danger that the full value of the parts get lost in the heaping up of images.
Today’s Gospel is the annunciation-by-dream-and-angel to Joseph. Joseph is there in the crib scene but not his dream. And this is a Scripture passage seldom represented in art down the centuries. But it’s well worth isolating and viewing in its own terms.
Joseph and Mary are betrothed — a relationship, solidified by custom and ancestral practice, which is marriage. All that remains is Mary going to live in Joseph’s house.
But she is pregnant. (‘By the Holy Spirit’ confides Matthew to the reader, letting us behind the stage and making his own position plain.) Joseph has a problem therefore. He is a just man — he is a faithful observer of the Law.
But what says the Law? The book of Deuteronomy laid it down that a betrothed woman found not to be a virgin should be returned to her father’s house and publicly stoned for the shame she has brought thereon.
By the first century it seems there was a milder method of dissolving the marriage less formally. Joseph is minded to take this latter course which will not expose Mary to being so publicly shamed.
A host of questions rushes into our minds Why did Joseph so decide?. It would not have totally spared Mary shame. How did Joseph know of the pregnancy? Did Mary explain about the angel? And what did both their families make of it all?
But ought we to ask such questions, natural enough as they are? Are we not in danger of reading back into the first century anachronistic attitudes of mind quite alien to Matthew’s purpose?
Matthew’s narrative is quite straightforward. Joseph is a man just under the Law in all his dealings. Joseph and Mary are betrothed. She is pregnant. Joseph is minded to spare her as much shame as he can. The angel of the Lord in a dream tells him to go ahead with the marriage. End of story!?
Reduced to its elements, the drama is simple. Joseph, the just, is minded to the course of action that seems to him best. God — through dream and angel — tells him how to act.
When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home.
Thus Joseph’s consent and obedience!
Yes, there is an explanation as well, plus a name for the boy to be born and a passage from the prophet Isaiah to put the whole event into continuity with the Scriptures and demonstrate it all lay within God’s providence. But the picture is simple. Joseph, just under the Law, assents to the word of the Lord.
Our questions? Are they not best seen as intrusive, almost impertinent? Better not to ask them! They are not answerable by us!
The theme of the collage? Much the same surely. Mary, wise men, shepherds, angels — they all in their several ways do as the Lord commands. Whether by angel, by star or whatever, God makes his will known. They all obey as should we in our, less spectacular, fashion.