This Sunday, a few brave (or should that be foolhardy?!) made it to church to hear our minister, Revd Dr Phil Wall and his friend, Revd Dr Andrea Russell, share their reflections on ‘walking with Mary & Joseph’. Below is what they shared…
Reading: Luke 1:26-38
Reflection – Walking with Mary: Andrea
In the 5th century the Church was discussing something that I think strikes us afresh every Advent and Christmas – just how do we describe who Jesus is in a way that is truthful to our experience of God in Christ and tries to do justice to this so very human life that engages us in the words and stories in Scripture – and not least as we gaze upon the baby in the arms of Mary.
Well, they did pretty well I think– but that’s another story. But what is interesting is that the discussion centred on the identity of Mary and how to describe her. There was a movement, which became the winning side, which called Mary ‘God-Bearer’ – the one in whom and from whom God is birthed. This description sought to proclaim, however amazingly, that Jesus was indeed full God and fully human – so in some sense we can talk about the God who is born.
It all gets a bit complex from there…but I want to focus a little on what it may mean for Mary to indeed be the God-bearer – to be the Mother of the Christ child – for her and for us.
I want to think about those initial months, when there was no outward sign, no evidence of the pregnancy (save for the fact of morning sickness maybe and a desire for odd food – how many ways can you cook lamb…) when the promise she had received grew in the darkness and faith was left clinging to a past revelation of an angel (did she ever wonder whether she dreamed that?) and the faithfulness of Joseph.
I want to think about how she was as the life within her grew – and elbowed her from the inside, and caused her belly to swell and made her feel uncomfortable and heavy and weary.
I want to think about how she entered labour and any fanciful ideas she may have had of this being a pain free birth (this was, surely, the Son of God and didn’t the rules change here – oh dear, no they didn’t) and the surrendering of her mind to the force of her body and the child who demanded to be born.
I want to imagine those first moments when this life, this flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone, blood of her blood, lies in her arms and feeds from her body and she, like women before her and women after her, succours the new life she has birthed. The God-man, dependent and vulnerable; receiving life and love.
This is what it meant for her to the God-bearer and as we ponder this maybe there are parallels to our own faith.
Maybe there are times for us when faith feels as if it is shrouded in darkness and God’s presence seems hidden and difficult to remember…when we have to look back to times when we were much surer of God’s promise of life…and hold on to them , and the faithfulness of those who love us, in order to keep walking this path of life.
Or maybe faith has become uncomfortable– God challenging us; the Spirit restless within us urging us on. We may feel heavy and burdened as we wait to see where God is leading us, and praying that God would make the way ahead clear.
And then there is suffering and pain. Times when we enter the valley of shadows and we know, agonizingly, that there is no special pain free way through life for Christians. And we endure and cry out and push and wait to find God amongst it all.
For there is and was and will be God. Not always in the way we imagine but in ways that have and do and will bring us to life – to the Life –who gazes on us with love and ask us to bear that love to the world and to be open to the world bearing that love to us.
Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
Reflection – Walking with Joseph: Phil
The year 1984 will mean a lot of different things to different people. For some, the year will take them to AirStrip One, where Big Brother and the thought police rule over Orwell’s frighteningly prophetic authoritarian state. For others, 1984 will be remembered as the year £1 notes went out of circulation; The first Apple Macintosh personal computer went on sale; four Ghostbusters took on a giant Marshmallow Man in New York and George Michael asked us to wake him up before we go-go.
For me, 1984 was far more significant than all this for in December of that year, I hit the nativity jackpot; at the St John’s United Reformed Church playgroup’s nativity, Christmas 1984, I was Joseph. I had, of course played with the lesser roles previously – I’d dabbled in shepherding, worn crowns and halos but that year I was deemed ready for the role of my life. And yet, when I look back at that particular career highlight, Joseph’s part can seem a little less crucial than it did at the time. I mean, Joseph doesn’t enjoy the exotic apparel of the wise men nor the rustic grit of the shepherds; he doesn’t shine with the supernatural glow of the angels and whilst it’s Mary who carries the story – quite literally – it’s the innkeepers who arguably have the killer line with the iconic “Sorry, no room at the inn.”
And it’s not just in nativity plays that it can feel like Joseph gets a rough deal. In the Bible, whilst Mary get the songs, Joseph doesn’t even get a single line of dialogue and soon after the birth stories, he fades into the background, seen briefly on only one other occasion where he goes unnamed, loses Jesus and gets reproached for not knowing where the precocious child is. Little wonder then, that you’ll rarely see an icon or artwork, statue or stained glass window of this often overlooked saint.
And yet, if you stop to think about it, Joseph did play a pivotal role in both Jesus’ birth and subsequent life. Luke’s version of events might emphasise Mary’s response to Gabriel and thus God’s plan but Matthew explains that without Joseph, God might have had to come up with a plan B. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “If Joseph believes the angel, everything is on. The story can continue. Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David. But if Joseph does not believe, then everything grinds to a halt. If he wakes up from his dream, shakes his head, and goes on to the courthouse to file the divorce papers, then Mary is an outcast forever – either killed by her family for disgracing them and herself or disowned by them and left to scratch out her living however she can, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she can beg or steal.” In other words, Joseph’s ‘yes’ to God’s plan as revealed in his dream was, in some ways, just as significant as Mary’s.
So, nativity role returned to its prominence, what might it mean for us to walk the way with Joseph today? Well, surely it must mean walking with the often forgotten, often overlooked members of our church and community. It must mean listening to those who often aren’t given any lines; learning from the women and men whose quiet, constant presence enables others to flourish; whose behind the scenes work and background service enable us to find God in our very midst.
It also means walking the way with those who choose generosity over judgment. When Mary told Joseph that she was with child and he knew that the child wasn’t his, he was well within his rights to walk away and wash his hands of this unmarried pregnant adolescent. The law was quite clear about what should be done with an engaged woman who gets pregnant with a child that wasn’t her fiancé’s;
“If there is a young woman,” it states in the book of Deuteronomy, “a virgin already engaged to be married,” and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
At a time in which we are reeling from a sexual abuse epidemic, such words might well make us cringe but in Joseph’s day, the law clearly said that an engaged virgin who slept with another man should be executed. Mary, of course, could tell people about the angel, the immaculate conception and all but who was going to believe that?! No, Mary would be seen as defiled, under God’s judgment and any honourable man would have nothing to do with her or her cursed child.
But Joseph acts differently. First, we’re told that Joseph, a righteous man who would have known what the law required, chose instead to divorce her quietly – to guard her against public disgrace, whether or not she had cheated on him. He could have been vengeful, vindictive and vicious – his community would have backed him on this – but instead, he chose a more generous path. A path that got a whole lot more complicated when the angel turned up and confirmed Mary’s story about a miraculous conception. Joseph could well have ignored this dream – who here hasn’t enjoyed some wild fantasy or exciting scheme at 2am, only to wake up later that morning and realize it was just a dream? But Joseph choose to put faith in the dream and in Mary; he chose a costly generosity over a rush to judgment; he chose to look at his wrecked plans, the mess of a situation that lay before him…and there found God. Perhaps it wasn’t simply a trade that Jesus learned from Joseph as he grew up, perhaps it was also his character – the ability to choose generosity over judgment – to see a woman caught in adultery and speak words of forgiveness whilst others picked up stones of retribution; the gift to find God amidst the mess – to walk to the cross believing God’s love, not human violence, will have the final word.
This advent, then, let’s walk with Joseph as we listen to all those who often get forgotten yet who make the world a more loving place to be in all sorts of quiet, unseen ways. Let’s walk with Joseph as we learn from those who choose mercy and forgiveness over judgment and retribution. Let’s walk with Joseph, Mary and the babe God entrusted to them both as we seek to find God’s presence when our lives don’t go as planned, as we strive to see God’s love in the mess and magnificence of the world in which we live. Amen.