May it be to me as you have said
In our reading today for the 4th Sunday of Advent, we now begin to enter into the Christmas story – “this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” – a story which in the Gospel according to Matthew is told from Joseph’s perspective, whereas in the Gospel according to Luke it is very much told from Mary’s perspective. Another way of looking at it is that in Matthew’s account, it is androcentric – the men do the talking and the women are silent, whereas Luke’s account is gynocentric – the women are at the centre of decision-making action, and the men – in this case, Zechariah – is literally struck silent (see Luke 1:18-25)!
We are told that Jesus’ mother Mary, who we remember today especially on this 4th Sunday of Advent, was pledged to be married to Joseph. But how might we understand what this means?
- the two families would discuss and negotiate the betrothal and if acceptable, agree to the union. This would include reaching an agreement for a price for the bride that would be paid to the bride’s father (very different to the traditional ‘dowry’ that might be brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage in our culture).
- a public announcement would be made. At this point, the couple were “pledged” to one another. In some respects, this is similar to engagement today, except that it will have been much more binding. So, at this point, even though the couple was not officially married, their relationship could be broken only through death or dissolution of the agreement similar to divorce. Sexual relations were not yet permitted.
The second step lasted for a year. During that time, the couple would live separately, with their parents. This waiting period would demonstrate the bride’s purity and give the couple an opportunity to prepare for marriage. If she were found to be pregnant during that time, the marriage could be annulled. Otherwise, the couple would then be married and only then begin living together.
Mary was both pledged and pregnant, and Joseph knew that the child was not his own. Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness carried a severe social stigma. According to Jewish civil law, Joseph had the right to divorce her. The law also explained that the penalty for unchastity was death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23–24), although this was rarely carried out at this time. That Mary was “found” to be pregnant indicates that she may not have immediately told Joseph, but had waited until her condition could be seen. This probably occurred after her return from visiting her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) with whom she had stayed for three months (see Luke 1:39–56).
It is into this context that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, the same angel that had first appeared to Mary and announced that she was chosen to be the mother of the promised Messiah. You may remember Mary asking the obvious question: “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The angel’s amazing answer both surprised and reassured Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Mary humbly accepted the angel’s words, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). She trusted God implicitly even though Joseph marrying her would have been an admission of guilt on his part when he was not guilty. To have a public divorce would have exposed Mary to public disgrace, and apparently, Joseph’s compassion would not allow him to expose her to public humiliation. God often gives us options and choices that with our limited understanding alone we would never even think of. And the angel that appeared to Joseph outlined the culmination and fulfilment of salvation history in the coming of the promised Messiah.
The virgin birth is incredibly important to the Christian faith that we profess. Only Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, through the incarnation was free from the sinful nature passed on to all other human beings by Adam. Jesus is fully divine and fully human and was born without any trace of human sin. The infinite, unlimited God took on the limitations of humanity so he could live and die for the salvation of all who believe in him. Because Jesus lived as a man, we know that he fully understands our experiences and struggles (Hebrews 4:15–16). Because he is God, he and he alone has the power and authority to deliver us from sin (Colossians 2:13–15). We can tell Jesus all our thoughts, feelings, and needs. He has been where we are now, and he has the ability to help. We are called to obedience and faithfulness – to God and to one another. In this time of Advent, a time of waiting, expectation and hoping, we are invited once again to remember and discern God in our midst – Emmanuel – God with us and seek his guidance. That must involve us being willing to put aside and even sacrifice choices that we might make out of our own volition as together we ask God what would he like us to do? We pray may YOUR kingdom come, may YOUR will be done. Are we open to the reality of that prayer being answered? Can we like Mary say, “May it be to me as you have said?” Amen