Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
Rules are rules.
We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable, and to make meaning, we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what's what -- something we need especially with respect to something that's really important. In some ways, you can tell what's really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to rules -- things you do because that's how it's done.
Rules help us make sense of the senseless. When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, there was a rule that had become law, and we called it "Mutually Assured Destruction." There were two superpowers: the U.S.S.R. and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age: by mistake or intention, someone launches theirs, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Mutually Assured Destruction -- the rule that accounted for how we didn't kill each other, and told us how we would eventually kill each other.
But not all rules are so grim. Weddings are important in our culture. Women who, in their day-to-day lives, have not only assumed responsibility for themselves and their decisions as adults, but are responsible for many others as heads of organizations, companies, or families often choose on their wedding day to be "given away" by their fathers -- not because they belong to their fathers to be given to another man, but just because "that's how it's done." Men who are already living and sharing household expenses with the woman they love go to incredible lengths to squirrel away enough to buy a diamond ring (and for a woman who doesn't wear jewelry) when they want to propose marriage because, well, "that's how it's done."
Imagine that amped up about ten thousand times, and you have some idea of how set ancient customs about betrothals (which go WAY beyond our ideas about "engagement") and marriages were. I highly recommend the treatment given to this in Bruce Malina's and Richard Rorhbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. It's serious stuff.
And rules are rules. That's what justice is, isn't it?
That's what Jesus upsets from the beginning -- even before he's born.
Here's the rule about what happens if you think the woman to whom you're engaged is bearing someone else's child: both the woman and the man whose child it is get death by stoning -- assuming you know the identity of the father, and that the woman is seized in an area in which someone could have heard her screams if she cried out. Joseph is a righteous (dikaios) man, but he refuses to expose Mary to public disgrace to carry this out.
So Joseph plans to divorce (a measure that would have to be taken to nullify a betrothal) Mary quietly. It's the best option he can take to avoid claiming a child that wasn't his (Who knows? He may have assumed that Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby.)
Of course, the dilemma Joseph faces stems from another "rules are rules" issue, this one biological: Children have fathers. God knows that children were meant to have two parents: one man, one woman! If Joseph didn't have sex with Mary, then somebody else did.
I guess rules were made to be broken.
There are a few other rules that get broken in this passage. They're rules of far less importance in ancient Mediterranean cultures, but they are important in some cultures we encounter -- rules like, "the written word -- especially in Scripture -- is of utmost importance, and all pious people must be faithful to it." They whole "THEY shall call his name Emmanuel" thing is not in Isaiah 7:14; Matthew was either quoting from a version of that text which is not preserved in any version of what we Christians or Jews call scripture, or the author was taking liberties with the biblical text -- something that many 20th- and 21st-century people find uncomfortable.
Ancient biographies , unlike modern ones, weren't interested in stages of development, and they certainly weren't interested in surprises. Subjects of ancient biographies were shown as being the same to their dying day as they were the day they were born -- the same the stars proclaimed they'd be at their birth. Jesus was no exception, in Matthew's biography.
Matthew's Jesus is "King of the Judeans," but the first people to recognize his coming, other than Joseph and Mary, are not Jews, but are astrologers, or magi, from eastern kingdoms. Jesus is the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would -- by the rules, anyway -- be called shameful. Jesus, who has no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless.
In other words, Jesus' whole life -- and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death -- is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.
Here's another rule, one that's trustworthy, by sensible reckonings: you reap what you sow.
But consider that the angel's word to Joseph in this Sunday's gospel is true: Jesus came to save to save people from their sins.
Take a moment to think about what sin is and where it leaves the world -- about everything that speaks and enacts brokenness, despair, dehumanizing people made in the image of God, despising God's good gifts. Think about it. Think about the solutions people have proposed for those things -- a war on poverty, a war on terrorism, eugenics as a "final solution" to make sure that humanity's weaknesses become extinct. Those are from the optimists. The pessimists among us say that there is no salvation from our sins: the poor get poorer, the sick stay poor and (no insurance? sorry -- can't help you!) thus get sicker, violence begets violence, and there is no out -- just doing the best that you can to keep what you've got and protect those who are yours in a world that is steadily going to hell, with or without a handbasket.
Think about it: an angel of the God of the universe told Joseph that the child who was to be born -- the child whose birth we anticipate in this last Sunday of Advent -- will save people from their sins.
We will not reap what we sow, what our parents sowed.
I started out this week's mediation talking a little bit about the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War and of Mutually Assured Destruction. And I can tell you about the day when I saw that world come tumbling down. I was in seminary at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and one morning while we were all having coffee in the common room, someone told us that the Berlin Wall was coming down.
That wall was more than a wall -- it was a world. The world of the Cold War was coming down, and people were dancing on it as it was crumbling. Students left St. Andrews in droves and hitchhiked to ports, bought tickets on ferries, did whatever they had to do to get there and dance with the dancers. They brought back chips of the wall, that thing that was built before we were born and told us how we and the world would die.
One of the few regrets I have in my life so far is that I didn't go.
I had things to do -- classes to attend, papers to write. I had a job waiting on tables. I was afraid to lose it, afraid the little money I had wouldn't get me to Berlin or wouldn't get me back. I was so busy with the life I was living in the world that was ending that I didn't read the signs: that world was ending, and I had the chance to dance with those who were welcoming a new world, one that wasn't doomed to end in massive fireballs or nuclear winter.
This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for a sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.
The whole world of sin is ending. It's ending now. It's bigger than the end of communism, the end of terrorism; it's the end of ending and the beginning of beginning. I was a fool to miss the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was afraid of missing a few classes on the theology of John's gospel. I don't want to make that mistake again. So now, I look to Jesus' Advent, to Jesus' birth. I see that the world of sin is falling, and when I'm really in touch with that, there's nothing I wouldn't drop to dance on the ruins as they fall.
I'm serious -- a world-changing event that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like trivia is on its way. It's not a pie in the sky; it's a tree growing from an undying root planted when Mary said "here I am" to God's call, and nurtured by Joseph's doing the right thing by refusing to do what the Law required. It's the end of every damn thing that damns us. Who wouldn't skip class, risk hitching a ride, do what it takes to get to where God's people are dancing there?
It's all happening! There are five days of Advent left to watch for it and get there -- figure out what's holding you back from going to where the stars will reveal the Christ, and make a decision to drop it. The time in which rules are rules is over. What would you do if the ONLY thing to do were to seek God and God's anointed?
We have received grace and apostleship to bring that to the peoples of the world ... starting with us, here, now.
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God indeed! Thank you for that meditation!
Posted by: Michael Yost | Dec 12, 2007 3:45:23 PM
I had better things to do today than read your comments (I thought). Turns out that your meditation is the best thing I read all day. Thanks.
Posted by: Vance Lusk | Dec 18, 2007 1:24:10 PM
Thanks for a great post. Speaking of rules being broken (and I know this is last week's but I can't help going back to the magnificent Magnificat) Mary's song is all about breaking rules too!
Posted by: Matt Thiele | Dec 19, 2007 9:24:54 PM
You begin like a dewy mist in the barren high mountains of human legalisms and constructs.
You conclude in a thunderous conflagration of unleashed grace and emancipated life that washes down like some springtime flood through the gulches and ruts of our theological rigidity to reopen our occluded souls to the rejuvenating water of the Good News!
What delight and refreshing!
Posted by: Steve Stanley | Dec 22, 2007 11:34:12 AM
Wow! I was late getting to this, but it is a great take on this passage.
Posted by: Jay Voorhees | Dec 22, 2007 7:59:17 PM