This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
His birth in human history
18-21 The birth of Jesus Christ happened like this. When Mary was engaged to Joseph, just before their marriage, she was discovered to be pregnant—by the Holy Spirit. Whereupon Joseph, her future husband, who was a good man and did not want to see her disgraced, planned to break off the engagement quietly. But while he was turning the matter over in his mind an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife! What she has conceived is conceived through the Holy Spirit, and she will give birth to a son, whom you will call Jesus (‘the Saviour’) for it is he who will save his people from their sins.”
22-23 All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet—‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’. (“Immanuel” means “God with us.”)
24-25 When Joseph woke up he did what the angel had told him. He married Mary, but had no intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son. Then he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew uses the Greek translation of the prophecy of Isaiah which says in Hebrew, ” the young woman shall conceive” -probably referring to a consort of the King; the Greek uses the word “parthenos” which means virgin. Does the whole “virgin birth” story rest on a mistaken translation? It’s possible, just as it’s certainly possible that the story of the holy family’s exile in Egypt is the result of the prophecy of Hosea, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Had this story only existed in Matthew’s gospel I would have seen it as Matthew’s way of fulfilling a prophecy that was actually never made in those terms. But the story also exists in Luke’s gospel; so I have to suspend judgement, reckoning that there may have been an early tradition about Jesus’ birth which indicated something out of the usual, perhaps something outwardly discreditable.
The virgin birth motif is intended by both gospel writers to assert the special will of God in the whole life of Jesus; the chain of human reproduction is interrupted by the initiative of God in the formation of this specific life. I am happy to receive the message of this story-that God is uniquely involved in the life of Jesus- without believing that God did it in this way. I think that Jesus was born out of the sexual union of his parents, and that his DNA was like mine and yours, and that he was-and is-a product of evolution, like you and me and the tree outside my window.
I would argue that if the creator has to interrupt the process of evolution to give the world his son, then that is a confession of abject failure on his part, that the original creation was a mistake requiring this rectification. Neither Matthew nor Luke of course is arguing for the later doctrine of the Virgin Conception of Jesus and his mother which the Church later developed, along with all the twisted anti-sex nonsense that has gone with it. For them, most probably the interruption is to fatherhood rather than to human reproduction. Jesus is born, by God’s will, from the less privileged sex, the mother, but with the approval of the father, who surrenders his will to the will of God.
Matthew tells the story from the point of view of Joseph, emphasising his goodness and his willingness to accept Mary’s pregnancy as being from God. By the way, the Bible phrase “had no intercourse with her until…” should put paid to a lot of disgraceful Catholic nonsense about Mary’s “perpetual virginity” and the sad history of celibacy which goes with it. In Matthew’s eyes Jesus is born as one with a questionable origin which is secretly the mark of his unique relationship with God.
For me, the greater miracle is that God should give the world this person Jesus of Nazareth through the long processes of evolution and history with all their accidents. Somehow, against all the odds, God is truly with us, not through any divine sleight of hand or hocus-pocus, but flesh or our flesh, seed of our seed, cell of our cell, without ceasing to be utterly beyond us.
Here is the Christmas parable I will offer a congregation tonight.
Akkido Sakai, Hiroshima survivor “I had returned home from work to pick up some papers from my house where I lived with my wife, my children aged two and four years, and my mother, recently widowed. I had just located the papers in my desk when I noticed a strange blue flash in the window. I turned away to close my desk when suddenly there was an intense heat and the house around me exploded and its components were scattered in all directions. I myself was blown into the air away from the house, which I later realised, saved my life. I lost consciousness for some time. When I came to, I could see that I was lying on ground scorched by fire, and that one of my legs was badly burned. Remembering my family I half- walked half- crawled towards my house. It no longer existed. I don’t mean it had been burned to the ground. It had been utterly consumed along with all its inhabitants. At that moment, if the fire had still been burning, I would have cast myself into it. All my loved ones had perished in an instant.
If there was no fire actually burning, the heat remained, making it very difficult to breathe and creating a terrible thirst, which was not relieved by the rain which started to fall. It was a black rain, containing something sticky which clung to your skin. From the slight hill on which my house had stood, I looked towards the city and could see no familiar landmarks at all. It was a smoking ruin.
Some terribly burned people came stumbling along the road asking me the direction to the river. I told them to follow me, if they could. I was used to walking in the hills and was able to keep a true direction towards the river which was only a mile or so from my house. Nevertheless, with the range of obstacles, including several industrial complexes, thrown across what had been roads, it took me a couple of hours to reach the river bank, by which time my company had grown to several hundred.
In terrible anguish from the hot wind, most of my companions hurled themselves in to the water to get some relief. The skin on my burned leg pealed back to expose flesh and muscle. I didn’t go into the river because I had decided to die by going to a solitary bit of riverbank, diving in and allowing myself to drown.
Soon I was on my own, and almost stumbled on the corpse of a young woman. By this time it was almost dark. I fetched out my cigarette lighter and looked at her, Beautiful and unmarked by fire she must have died from lack of oxygen when it was sucked into the flames nearby, perhaps.
This confirmed me in my desire to die. As I took a last look at her before readying myself for the river I noticed a movement in her clothes. Imagining that maybe she was alive I rushed to her side in time to hear the faint whimpering of a baby. There it was, bound against her chest. I unbound the child and picked her up. She seemed content with this and stopped crying. Holding the child to my body I stepped into the river and soaked us both, so that we might have a chance of surviving the heat. I remember thinking it was a bit like the baptism that Christians have.
For now someone had given me this life, this gift of life, which asked me to set aside thoughts of myself and attend solely to its survival. Looking at her in the midst of a horror brought about by human beings I was reminded how perfectly we come into this world, our helpless small bodies expressing the trust that the world will be good to us.
Often still, as I look at the elderly woman my baby daughter has become, I tell her, “You saved my life,” and she says the same, and we both weep for the good and evil of the world.”
Into our soiled and sorrowful hands God gives his son tonight, requesting our care and love.
Christmas blessings to all who read this; and to the world God loves, Amen.