One of my favorite yearly traditions is the holiday cards that arrive in our mailbox from friends and loved ones. They always include a lovely collection of smiling faces, but I also admire the cards that offer some honesty as well. For instance, several years ago we received a card from a friend who had recently divorced. The photograph he sent showed him and his children happy and carefree on summer vacation. The joyful scene in the picture contrasted starkly with a paragraph at the end of the letter where my friend wrote, “People from broken families pay an emotional price all of the time, but that is especially true during the holidays.”
That card continues to remind me that for many the joy of this season is mingled with pain and sorrow. The merrymaking of these days covers up the truth that this is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone. We sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” But where is home for folks whose families have been torn apart? What if home is a place of bitterness and betrayal? What if the happy memories of these days are harsh reminders of what we have lost, of who we have lost?
Christmas is difficult.
But then, as this text from Matthew suggests, Christmas has been difficult from the beginning. Just ask Joseph. He is committed to Mary in a legal way, and legal action would be required to end the relationship if some problem should arise. And there is a problem, a problem growing bigger every week. Mary’s pregnancy is obvious to anyone, but how she became pregnant makes sense to no one. Now Joseph has to decide what to do about the marriage. A righteous man, who is familiar with the law and the Scriptures, Joseph knows there are two choices: disgrace Mary by filing for divorce or have her stoned to death. That’s what the Scripture says. Isn’t that what a righteous man would do, follow the Scriptures?
Joseph instead reads the Scripture through the lens of mercy and grace. Joseph reads Scripture as if he knows something about the God to whom Scripture points. It’s all problematic, of course, but Joseph refuses to turn from the difficulty. Sifting through the many layers, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly, save her the public humiliation, and keep the baby safe. It is a big step beyond what convention would suggest, but Joseph is willing to do that.
However, the merciful and gracious God would have him do even more. An angel comes to Joseph to announce that the child growing inside of Mary is not a moral dilemma. Instead, the child is a gift for all people, a savior, the Son of God. “Take Mary for your wife. Name the child. Name him Jesus.”
Does Christmas get more difficult than this? An angel in a dream explaining that the child conceived by the Holy Spirit in a virgin womb is the incarnation of God? It’s all difficult and surprising, awkward and challenging. Who can believe such a thing? Who knows how it will all turn out? Who can calculate the cost? Who can fathom what is still to come? And yet Joseph is willing to accept the risk, buck convention, and embrace the promise and the peril of what the angel says.
While we are not told specifically how Joseph is able to summon the courage and conjure strength in such an uncomfortable time, I suspect it has something to do with the passage from Isaiah that Matthew weaves into this wonderful story. Remembering a season hundreds of years ago when the birth of a special child was to Israel a sign of God’s presence, Matthew brings forward the prophet’s words to this time, this child, “‘The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they will name ‘Emmanuel,’ which means God is with us.”
The God who is with Joseph equips him to respond faithfully to such an extraordinary task and empowers him for a risky righteousness, far beyond convention, far beyond what Joseph could ever have imagined.
Emmanuel, the God who is with us, provides strength, courage, mercy, and grace to respond to the difficult things before us this season. God is with us as we seek to mend our brokenness and heal our hurts. God is with us as we remember and weep and seek to go on. God is with us, inviting us, encouraging, empowering us to believe in the promise of Christmas.
Questions for reflection
- How have you thought about the character of Joseph over the years? What are his admirable qualities?
- Reflect on the significance of the two names for the child mentioned in this passage: Jesus and Emmanuel.
- The more famous biblical birth story of Jesus is told in Luke 2:1-20. How do the birth accounts from Matthew and Luke fit together? How do they diverge? What distinctive points does each story seek to make?
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