It is interesting when you start to analyze the roles people take in the Bible. For such a patriarchal society, men do not fare well. This is especially seen in the gospels. On the surface, the gospel, and especially the birth narrative, are about how God became man. But more than that, the story about the birth of Christ is a statement on power, politics, and social order. So it is not surprising that over and over, we see women and outcasts playing significant roles with the journey of Christ.
Both Matthew and Luke start their gospel journey in the most logical of places, giving an answer to the question of how Christ came into this world, how the Word became flesh, or to use the theological term, “the incarnation.” While Mark does not address the incarnation at all, John goes into a wholly mystical direction, giving a creation narrative in its place¾but that is a different letter! One of the great issues of importance in the birth narrative for Matthew and Luke is that it establishes a witness to a human birth. This firmly expresses an understanding of the incarnate Christ.
As I said before, establishing the incarnate nature of Christ is important, but not the only aspect of importance. There is the role of Mary and Joseph in the whole story. I must say, we walk down some dangerous and much debated issues when we come to Mary. From debates on the virgin birth to claims of her divinity, I personally think all that takes away from the real power that is going on in the story.
Mary is the mother of Jesus, and there must be something super special about that, but making Mary divine misses her role. The most important thing is that she was the first human to unconditionally accept Christ. While abortion was not something often pursued at the time, both infanticide and child abandonment were common, and reading into the text as Mary “explores her options,” we can see in the background the reality of those choices. But Mary is helped by an angel who gives her an understanding of what her call would be, and Mary decides to accept this call. This makes her, as unlikely as it seems for a young girl, to be the first to make the powerful witness to Christ.
And then we have Joseph. Joseph is often overlooked because he doesn’t have much of a role. Most interpretations of the biblical narrative, as well as tradition, would say that he is not the biological father. So many discount the importance of what he did for the birth narrative. Unfortunately, like making Mary divine and, thus, removing the struggle to accept what is happening to her, discounting Joseph does the same. Like Mary, Joseph must make a choice to accept the situation. Like Mary, he does so after weighing his options. And like Mary, it is an angel that ultimately helps him to accept Christ. But Joseph needs to take one more step: knowing that Christ is not his offspring, he has to adopt and raise him as his own. We know he does this through Jesus’ profession and the very few stories of his childhood.
What I find interesting about this is that the birth narrative mirrors how we come to Christ. Mary represents all of the faithful today. Like the Jews who are the chosen people, Mary was born into her role. She was chosen by God for a special relationship, and she had to make a choice about whether to accept her place or to reject it. Granted, being human, it took divine intervention to help Mary make the right choice, but she did.
Joseph, on the other hand, represents the those who are new to faith and those who are called not to be out front, but to walk alongside the leaders in faith. Joseph was not the chosen one, but for Jesus to thrive in this world, he had to accept him as his own. This is something that all people who come to faith must do! Very few of us are ever in the spot of Mary, where we are the chosen. But often we are called to walk alongside those who have been called to do miraculous things. To be honest, that is just as important, if not more, because it is those people who enable the chosen to thrive.
Together, Mary and Joseph were a couple charged with that very important part of Jesus’ life. While it is not something that is written about, it is also something that does not need to be written about! We know what it means to raise a child, and we know how hard it can be. The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the reason Christ was able to be and do what he needed to do is that two simple people made a choice to accept and love him. And with that the world was changed. This raises the question: what you would do?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen