Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen
St. Thomas Aquinas gave me a different perspective on the Christmas story this year. According to Jerome and Origen, Joseph was not at all suspicious that Mary had committed adultery. He knew Mary’s purity and had read in Isaiah, Chapters 7 and 11 that a virgin would conceive: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” He had also known that Mary, like himself, had descended from David. Hence, it was easier for him to believe that the prophecy had been fulfilled in her than that she had fornicated with another.
In looking at the story in Matthew, we know that “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, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'” A man who believed he’d been cheated on wouldn’t be afraid – he’d be angry. And so, considering himself unfit to live together with such holiness, he wanted to put her away, divorce her, secretly. He thought himself unworthy.
We know from today’s gospel in Luke that Joseph followed the angel’s advice, and agreed to be a dad to a child whose heavenly Father couldn’t participate in the physical life of His child. Joseph and Mary, as husband and wife, traveled to be registered in the census. To keep things easier in the day of the census without computers, one was obliged to travel back to the town of their family, where the ancestral records were kept.
Now we generally skip reading the genealogies in Luke, Chapter 3:23-38 and Matthew, Chapter 1 for several reasons, but you’ve seen them – listing the names of people you either don’t recognize or may have the barest familiarity with is a bit dull; the names are difficult for modern tongues to pronounce; and if you compare the two sections, there are differences, which have confounded scholars for centuries. Some believe Luke was providing the genealogy of Mary rather than Joseph, but Luke begins the list with Joseph, so there’s still the conflict.
Many of you know that my dad was hugely into genealogy, having traced his paternal line back to 9th century France. His work on our family’s genealogy was renowned, to the point that he was the genealogist for the Sons of the American Revolution in Florida. Of course, as with my mother’s habit of getting me involved with her projects, Dad did too, emailing me bits and pieces of information, and asking me to find more evidence, books online, or lending libraries which had material and might be willing to send particular books to him, or if I was very lucky, one that would send him just the pages he needed.
When conflict arose in a person’s genealogy, dad would look at the circumstances and people surrounding the person in question. So let’s do that here, but let’s go back and look at the Israelites at the time of King David. God had provided them with law, and with judges and with prophets, but the Israelites wanted a King. God told them that He was their king, but they were quite certain that while they worshipped God, they needed a king for the everyday and mundane of life, as well as for keeping up with the Jones – or the Philistines and Amalekites of their day. God, through Samuel, warned them against a human king, but they would not listen. And God knew that the consequences of these actions would lead to nothing but heartache for His chosen, but He allowed them the choice. He first gave them Saul, and ultimately determined Saul to be unworthy. Samuel, guided by God, set David on the throne, setting up a line of succession that one day, God, Himself, would have to fulfill.
And Isaiah told them about the darkness, the heavy yoke they were choosing, the armies that would be over them. But as we listen to him, with our present, Christian perspective, we hear the prophecy of the one God will send, with new ears:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
This census – this genealogical master source of its time – carried utmost importance for the chosen people. And while there is little doubt Mary was also of David’s line, it was Joseph, Jesus’ human dad, who provided the lineage trusted by so many. He overcame his fear of being unworthy, and trusted in God’s plan, most likely praying constantly that he was doing the right thing by God’s Son, teaching Him properly, being there for the human experience Jesus came for.
Can you imagine being responsible for raising God’s son? And in the very first instance, the place where He would be born, Joseph must have felt like a complete failure. They were traveling, dusty, tired, sore from the trip. Mary had gone into labor, and because of the census, all the inns, hotels, bed and breakfasts were completely booked. Joseph was running out of time, and needed to get Mary to somewhere to lie down to deliver the Son of God.
What if one of the inn keepers had been moved differently? Wally was an awkward and shy child who belonged to the church kids club. It was time to hand out roles for the Christmas play, but what role should the teacher give Wally? She decided on the inn-keeper. It was an important role, but required Wally only to shake his head and say one line “Sorry, we’ve no room.” Wally grinned from ear to ear when he learned of his important role and he couldn’t wait for the big night.
It arrived soon enough, and the play was proceeding according to plan. Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem and come to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked on the door and it opened to Wally. “Please sir, do you have a room we could take?” asked Joseph. Wally shook his head and replied. “I’m sorry, we’ve no room”.
Now the boy playing Joseph was a particularly precocious child, and while the script called for he and Mary to turn away at this point, Joseph decided to exercise some dramatic license. “But sir” he said to the innkeeper, “My wife is about to have her baby and we need somewhere to stay. Couldn’t you find us a room?” Wally’s face went white – this was not planned for! – and he paused for a moment before repeating his line. “I’m sorry, we’ve no room.”
“But sir” replied Joseph, “We’ve traveled such a long way and we’ve nowhere else to go and my wife is very tired. Surely you can find us somewhere.” Wally bowed his head, shook it sadly and said, “I’m sorry, we’ve no room.” Forlornly Joseph and Mary started walking away. Wally, now fully into his role, felt shamed and saddened. A tear trickled down his cheek. Then his voice was heard calling out. “Wait! Please come back. You can have my room.”
It may not have been according to script, but at that moment Wally gave perfect expression to the Christmas story. But maybe God had other plans for Mary, Joseph and His Son – maybe He wanted them somewhere accessible to the shepherds, where young and old alike could come as His star provided the birth announcement, and the angels sang, inviting all to visit the new family. Joseph and Mary found room at the stable, and the Baby found his first bed in a manger. The King had arrived, and yet, He would be nothing like what the Israelites expected.
From their perspective, they assumed that the mien and mantle of a heavenly king would be the same as one from a human king. They had forgotten the perspective Isaiah had given them: “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”. Footstools aren’t generally thought of as being fancy, but rather utilitarian. So for the Son of God, the rightful heir of King David to lay in a manger, people should have known to anticipate something completely contrary to what they were expecting.
History will judge us by our legacy. From the perspective of history, no other individual has had the impact on the world that Christ had. And whatever part Joseph played in shaping the human child Jesus became, he, also, had an impact on that history of the world.
When we, too, are afraid that we are not worthy of whatever God is calling us to, let’s remember that that’s not up to us. From God’s perspective, He has already judged us worthy, because He sent us His Son to redeem us.