Back in the summer I was commissioned to write a series of Advent reflections for Stewardship. Besides being extremely strange thinking so much about Christmas during the heat of the summer, it was quite a challenge to come up with anything new to say about such a familiar narrative.
The thing about the Bible, though, is that it always rewards diligent study. As I dug into the lives of some of the characters involved, I unearthed incredible treasures about a story I thought I knew backwards.
One of the biggest revelations was in the story of Joseph.
When we first meet Joseph in Matthew 1, he has just learned that his beloved fiancée is expecting a baby. He knows it isn’t his, and she doesn’t seem willing or able to give an adequate explanation of who the father is. What are the options?
She could have been raped. If she was out in the countryside when it happened, with no-one around to hear her screams for help, the law would not hold her culpable (see Deut 22:23-26). But she’s not claiming that. Why?
Maybe because she’s trying to protect the father. If she was raped by someone she cares about, or someone who has some kind of hold over her, she might be too scared or too compassionate to break her silence.
Or maybe it wasn’t rape. Perhaps Joseph has been wrong about her all this time and she loves another man.
What would you have thought? Looking at the text, I think in Joseph’s heart of hearts he believed that Mary had willingly slept with another man, that she loved someone else.
This is pure speculation, of course, but it seems consistent with the biblical facts. We are told that Joseph was faithful to the Law “and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19). If he thought she had been raped, surely the honourable, loving thing to do would not have been to ‘divorce her quietly’ – that would have left her as ‘sullied goods’ in the values of the time, meaning no-one would want to marry her, and thus giving her and her child no means of support. That doesn’t sound consistent with the Bible’s painting of him as a good and righteous man. If he was trying to avoid exposing her to public disgrace, he must surely have thought that she deserved the disgrace – that she had consented to sex.
Devastated, betrayed, reeling, what did he decide to do? In what seems like the most heroic act of love you could hope to find in any Christmas romance, he chose to quietly release her from her commitment to him. Perhaps he thought that if she were free, the man she truly loved might take care of her. It was a gamble – the other man might also have rejected her, having used her and got what he wanted, but it certainly looks to me as though Joseph wanted to give Mary a chance of happiness, even at the cost of his own.
Such love. Such true justice – law tempered with mercy. Such an honourable man.
And then, after letting him think it all through and make his decision, God put him out of his misery. Mary was telling the truth! She was faithful, she was still a virgin, and she did love him!
In another act of courageous love, Joseph went ahead with the marriage after all. He took this woman – who was still tainted in the world’s eyes – to be his wife, thus legitimising her and giving her security, hope and a future.
What struck me most as I pondered the story was how Joseph’s actions painted a beautiful picture of the ultimate act of love that Jesus was to perform for us: a bridegroom betrayed (so he thought) by his bride, yet loving her so much he was willing to give up everything for her sake. A man who knew and upheld the law, yet administered it with mercy and compassion. Someone in a position of power who held all the cards, yet humbled himself in order to reconcile his bride to himself and give her hope and a future. No wonder God chose this man to be the earthly father of his Son.
This was the first draft of the piece that is now on the Stewardship blog. Hop on over there then to see how it came out. You can read my pieces on hope, peace and joy there too, and see what gems I discovered on those themes.
May you be given the gifts of hope, joy, love and peace this Christmas, and may you find fresh treasures in the familiar stories as you hear them told once again this year.