Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
- Matthew 1:19
“That’s a shame,” we say, when we hear about things going badly for someone.
“Shame on you!” my Dad used to say, when I did something naughty. He said that to me a lot, if I recall...!
The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: Mary was pregnant, and her fiancé Joseph knew perfectly well that he was not responsible for that fact. Being an intelligent fellow, who knew enough about the birds and the bees, he guessed that she was involved with someone else. But, as Matthew reports, Joseph was not only intelligent; he was also “righteous” and compassionate, too. He had a choice: to either tell people why he was letting her out of the engagement, or to simply end it. He was all set to simply end it without adding to her shame.
Nowadays, we live in a society which has countless different standards for sexual behavior for different people. Laws differ across county and state lines; community standards also differ widely. In Rockingham County, Virginia in the year 2016, a boy and girl of sixteen may marry if they each have the consent of a father, mother, or legal guardian. In other states and nations, the ages and rules sometimes go younger still. We are told that that was the case in Joseph and Mary’s day.
In Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg in A.D. 2013 (the latest year for which the Virginia Department of Health has published statistics,*) thirty-six girls here ages 17 and younger gave birth to babies. In Page County, there were three. One may fairly assume that those girls did not conceive those babies all by themselves. Unless marvelous supernatural events like we read about in Matthew and Luke’s gospels took place, there were boys and men involved— not to say “responsible.”
In fact, of 1453 live births in Harrisonburg and Rockingham in 2014, 485 were to unmarried women of all ages (33.4%). We don’t stone women— or men— to death for adultery or fornication around here... not in A.D. 2016. Those babies are growing up among us, as are their mommies and daddies.
This reminds me of a ‘blooper’ given to me by an old social worker who worked for the YMCA and Salvation Army for many years. Someone sent in an angry response to the way they were described in their official paperwork: “I resent you saying I am illiterate as I was married 2 weeks before my children were born.”
Luke’s gospel says that Jesus was born while Joseph and Mary were engaged. Matthew’s gospel says that Joseph “took her as his wife” — already pregnant. This raises many questions for us, such as: did the neighbors make snide comments about the baby? When Joseph and Mary went from ‘engaged’ to ‘married,’ who witnessed, or celebrated, or officiated, or gave consent? We know who invited the magi to the baby shower.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We deal with people today who are ashamed, whether privately or publicly. We have talk shows that daily allow people to air their dirty laundry. We have neighbors who assume double standards for themselves compared with their children, or for themselves compared to people who are somehow “different”— by race, or age, or culture, or nationality, or religion, or language.
Joseph had a visit from an angel in a dream. The angel told him to go beyond even the righteousness and compassion that were already part of his character, and to accept the baby as “God with us.” Let us allow angels from the All-Compassion-ate, All- Loving One to speak to us in our dreams, this Christmastide, about babies, mommies, and daddies. God is still speaking.
“Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign: ....” Isaiah 7:14