by Ellen Sims
On this final Sunday of Advent as we consider God’s gift of Love, the James Baldwin quotation at the top of your bulletin may be all the sermon we need: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense, but as a state of being, or a state of grace, not in the infantile American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” (Qtd. in Krista Tippett’s interview with Serene Jones (https://onbeing.org/programs/serene-jones-on-grace/#transcript). (1)
Baldwin wisely emphasizes a love that is not that floaty sensation you experience when someone makes you feel happy and prized; it’s the key virtue that we aspire to, a spiritual discipline that we cultivate, a demanding commitment that stretches us to the fullness of our humanity. We see a hint of that kind of love in Matthew’s nativity story, which comes from a different angle than Luke’s version we’ll read Tuesday night. Matthew will continue developing in his Gospel a picture of God’s love embodied in Jesus. But Matthew’s first portrait of human love is taken from the depth and strength of Joseph. While the Gospel of Luke, which accentuates the role of women in Jesus’s ministry, emphasizes Mary in the birth story of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph’s role and perspective.
Notice how passively Mary is depicted by Matthew. In the first three sentences she is identified in relation to the males in her life as Jesus’s mother and Joseph’s wife. Her identity isn’t known apart from them, her thoughts and feelings go unshared. Even her actions are conveyed in the passive voice: she “had been engaged” to Joseph and she “was found to be with child.” Mary is not an actor in the story. And she never speaks, nor does she sing a triumphant, empire-defying song as she does in Luke. Nor is this Mary at all like the take-charge young woman whom Luke describes as setting out on an adventurous journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s house while pregnant. No, and in Matthew’s version the angel appears not to Mary but to Joseph, and not “in person” so to speak, but in a dream. Joseph is lauded as a “righteous man” by Matthew, but nothing is said of Mary’s character, and there’s no mention of the angel Gabriel’s declaration, twice in Luke, that Mary is one of God’s favorites. Instead, in Matthew it’s Joseph who, on the unnamed angel’s command, names the child. Calling Mary a virgin mother might seem to elevate her as someone extraordinary, but it also characterizes her as ethereal and perhaps not a real person grappling with the gritty problems humans face in the everyday demands of love. So in Matthew’s bio of Jesus, we need to look to Joseph for a fleshed out example of what love looks like amidst the messiness of life.
Before admiring the kind of selfless love Matthew presents, let’s explicitly recognize Matthew’s patriarchal bias. One Matthean scholar explains Matthew’s attention to Joseph over Mary was a means of establishing Jesus’s authority through his paternal lineage going back to King David and well beyond that to Abraham, in a patriarchal culture that emphasized the father’s bloodline (Overman 39). But in our culture a person’s male ancestors are far less likely to impress us than they would in Jesus’s day. Twenty-first century Western Christians, especially with feminist concerns for Mary’s silence in this narrative, need more than Joseph’s impressive paternal bloodline to find him admirable.
What we can admire about Joseph is his duty to God, to the unborn child, and to the pregnant Mary—-which we perceive only through his actions. Interestingly, we have no idea how Joseph felt about Mary. Betrayed? Confused? Sympathetic? Infatuated? The narrator tells us not a word about the couple’s feelings for one another. We see only Joseph’s deeds that, as the story develops later around King Herod’s intentions to kill the child, were critical in saving the baby from the slaughter of the innocents. We recognize a pattern in the story that shows Joseph receiving warnings by an angel in four dreams. After each dream he did precisely and unquestioningly what the angel instructed and with concern only for the safety of mother and child.
Matthew tells us nothing about the feelings Mary and Joseph had for one another. Love can be, if this story is a model for us, initially or fundamentally about respect, care, kindness, selflessness, courage, and graciousness. Neither romantic nor even familial love is acknowledged in Matthew’s nativity story. For that matter, neither Joseph nor Mary speaks at all in Matthew’s nativity story. Yet the folks who created the lectionary and who assigned this Gospel reading for today seem to be putting some pressure on today’s preachers to correlate the fourth Sunday in Advent’s theme of love to this story about Mary and Joseph. Let us just be clear that the Gospel gives us no hint of romantic love. And besides, the people of first century Palestine did not think of romantic love in the same way we do today and certainly not as an expectation or requirement for marriage.
We see in today’s pericope actions rather than emotions. We watch two people who, if we trust the story, have never known physical intimacy together, and who face stigma and danger as they try to do the right thing. This is the kind of love, to use James Baldwin’s language, that engages in “the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” If you have not loved someone through a daring quest and in a time of personal and relational growth, whether it was romantic/sexual love or familial love or friendship, then you may have only known “the infantile, American” type of love. Deep love challenges and changes you.
This dark season of Advent, pregnant with signs in this world of both hate and hope, demands a gritty and gracious response from us. We are to bring forth or midwife a kind of love that lifts up women who’d otherwise be cast aside. We are to save children who are neglected or crushed by the powerful. We are to listen to the Spirit’s leading and dream, dream, dream of ways we might accompany the fragile ones to safety. Growing in us over the past weeks, in this intensifying womb of darkness, was a determined Love. And now Love is waiting to be born in and through us. We’ve been pregnant with possibilities. Maybe now it’s time to deliver to this world unflinching love.
But bearing this precious gift is different from bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. We must strain and stretch to bring forth something new and daring, a new way of being in this world, a tougher love, less nice and more powerful, less personal and more political in its impact. The Love that came forth as Jesus and exists now as the Christ unifying all creation is not quaintly captured by Hallmark. Love, said St. Paul, “endures all things” that may try to destroy it.
We face a serious challenge, you and I, to experience real Love and to share it through radical commitment to the Jesus Way. We get a glimpse of the demands of Love from poor Joseph here: a man who saved a woman and child at the expense of his reputation and at the risk of his own life. Joseph, who says not a word in the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel, pictures for us a human image of tenacious Love.
In a recent interview, author, theologian, UCC clergywoman, and president of Union Theological Seminary in New York Serene Jones spoke of the love of God as “stronger and more powerful and persistent, larger, greater, more eternal, than anything we do.” Then she compared what’s happening today to the period of the Protestant Reformation, because in both periods “everything [was]/is falling apart, and something new [was]/is emerging. . . . The new can’t emerge without the old breaking down. But it’s turn[ing] a moment of fear and terror into a moment of exuberant hopefulness. . . . We are in the midst of a political, spiritual love crisis. . . . And that’s where the quest, the daring, the exploration — that’s where the bigness of love as the ultimate truth about the world and our lives has to be present. I believe that we can’t do it on our own if we don’t have that guiding force. I see [this love] in so many places around our nation and around the world, where communities are struggling together to improve, collectively, the conditions of their life, whether it be on the border or in Chicago, New York City, in Argentina or Yemen. Love persists. And it’s a remarkable, almost miraculous thing that love persists.”
She continued, “But at Union Theological Seminary, I see a next generation of — many of them young people, but of all ages and many religious traditions, and some with no religious background; racially; sexual identity — just extremely diverse. And they’re coming to seminary because they feel that earthquake, too. And they believe in the future and that a better world is possible and that that challenge of reaching it is a spiritual challenge. It’s not just figuring out how to drill a new well. It’s figuring out how to redefine what water is and why we need it and the sustenance. And so the fact that a place like Union is growing and thriving, and people are showing up in the midst of this almost. . . shut-down nation that’s so embattled, they’re showing up, walking through the doors, asking the big questions, and still expecting, hoping, yearning for some kind of future and a wisp of an answer.” (Jones, qtd. in Tippett)
Friends, many more people enter our circle of love at Open Table than those who stay. Sometimes they leave because they expected church to be easy, and it is not. The stakes are too high to low ball this. Sometimes they leave because we gave them too little, and they need so much. Their lives deserve our attention and love.
We started Advent seeking hope. In the final week of Advent we have hope pointing us to Love, the greatest of all God’s gifts and our only hope.
(1) Tippett, Krista. “On Being” podcast: https://onbeing.org/programs/serene-jones-on-grace/#transcript
(2) Overman, J. Andrew. Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew. The New Testament in Context. Howard Clark Kee and J. Andrew Overman, eds. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, p. 39.