December 22, 2013
One of the funniest quirks about the movie Love Actually, comes in its first few minutes. One of the characters, Karen, a stay-at-home mother, rushes off the phone with her grieving friend Daniel to hear news from her young daughter about her upcoming part in the school Christmas play.
She proudly tells her mother that her part in the nativity story is the lobster. Not just any old lobster, but first lobster. Karen, looking slightly askance at this, asks, “You mean there was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” Her daughter, without missing a beat, says, “Duh.”
You see more of this play at the culmination of the movie, but it’s never explained why sea creatures are present at the nativity. It makes for a bizarre nativity scene to be sure, but that’s all right. Having lobsters and octopi and a Spiderman Magi is just all part of the general eclectic fun of this wonderful movie.
But honestly, why is having a lobster in a live nativity in a school play any more bizarre than the nativity scenes we set out in our own homes? Let’s think about what a “traditional” nativity scene looks like. The crèche that we have at our house has the standard characters. There’s Mary, blonde, blue-eyed, dressed in beautiful blue robes, and sculpted in a kneeling position, with her gaze focused peacefully downward. Joseph is always standing. In our version he’s holding a staff, and like Mary his eyes are peacefully looking downward. Then there’s the baby Jesus. Our baby Jesus looks more like a toddler than a newborn. And the “swaddling clothes,” which Luke’s gospel assures us he was wrapped in, is just a blanket thrown across his middle. Our crèche also has the other standard characters: a shepherd, an angel, the wise men, a sheep, a camel.
This isn’t meant to be a complaint about our nativity scene or nativity scenes in general. St. Francis of Assisi, who created the first nativity – a living nativity with real people and real animals – did so to help the people he served see the Biblical story. It was a way for them to not only learn the story of Jesus’ birth, but to feel a part of it as well. Our nativities are still meant to do that. But the figures that I set out each year, while lovely and symbolic, aren’t realistic. Just once I’d like to see a realistic nativity. I want to see a manger scene where Mary not only looks Middle Eastern, but also looks like she’s just given birth, which is a sweaty and messy process. Having given birth twice myself, I know she would not have been perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed and kneeling before the manger. Joseph was probably frazzled, scared, and worried sick about his wife and child. And Jesus would have looked like a newborn, wrinkled and tiny and a little traumatized by what he’d just gone through. All three would have been exhausted. That would be realistic.
If we’re going to be realistic about the actual birth of Jesus, let’s also be realistic about the scene that’s set before us in Matthew. This is Matthew’s birth narrative. As one scholar said, “Don’t blink, you might miss it.” The passage begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” Then it immediately moves into the story of Joseph. Mary, who is silent in Matthew’s account, is questionably pregnant and we learn of Joseph’s initial response. Joseph, not Mary, is the focus of Matthew’s telling.
Yet how do we picture this time in Joseph’s life? The traditional scene is of Joseph, a kind, gentle man, not wanting to cause any harm to his betrothed, Mary. Because of his care and concern for her, he decides to dismiss her quietly. No questions asked. Once he’s resolved to do this, he goes to sleep. But his sleep is disturbed when an angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and reveals God’s purpose for the child to come.
Mary is going to have a son. You will name him Jesus, for he is going to save God’s people from their sins. All of this is going to fulfill the words of the prophet. A virgin shall conceive a son, and the son shall be named Emmanuel or God with us.
When Joseph woke up, he did exactly what the angel commanded. He took Mary as his wife, but they had no “marital relations” until after the birth. When the baby was born, a son just as he had been told, Joseph named him Jesus.
That’s Matthew’s account of the birth story. Don’t blink. You might miss it. It is a brief account to say the least. But what would it have looked like? What would the realistic picture of this event in the life of Joseph have actually been? I don’t dispute Joseph’s kindness or his care and concern for Mary. But I think he would have been distressed to say the least. What we read as engaged or betrothed isn’t the same relationship we understand it to be today. Being betrothed essentially meant that Joseph and Mary were married. It was the first step in a two-step process. It was an official relationship. The second step would be for Mary to move into Joseph’s home and for them to live as husband and wife. Although that second step hadn’t happened yet, they were still technically married. We might equate it to societies that have both a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony for marrying couples. You do one first, then the other. Regardless, Joseph and Mary were married, and the fact that Mary turns up pregnant could only be seen as a result of her unfaithfulness.
I think it’s a good bet that Joseph felt distressed, angry, betrayed. Although we hear nothing from Mary in Matthew’s telling, I suspect she was distressed as well. Her song of praise is not recorded here. She was young and pregnant. No matter that the pregnancy occurred through the Holy Spirit, she must have still been afraid and worried as to what would become of her and the baby.
Joseph is described as being a righteous man. There is more debate than I realized about what that description really means. Was Joseph righteous, meaning that he was just a good guy? Or was he righteous, meaning he was trying to live according to the Law? The Law dictated not only that Joseph severe his relationship with Mary, but that she should be punished for her unfaithfulness as well. That punishment may very well have been death by stoning. Dismissing her quietly might have been Joseph’s attempt at saving her life. But the truth is, if he had cast her out she would have been an unmarried mother-to-be in a society that would have responded severely. Either way, Mary’s fate and the fate of her child was precarious.
It is not an idyllic scene, is it? Even God’s intervention through Joseph’s dream doesn’t make it any neater or more picturesque. Joseph and Mary aren’t precious little figurines just absorbing the actions of God on behalf of the world without response. They were real people, with real fears and worries. They were flesh and blood; they had real emotions. Joseph’s decision to dismiss Mary and his subsequent change of mind and heart was no more an idyllic moment than the actual birth of Jesus. Yet we portray these stories as being just that. Idyllic. Beatific. Serene. But that’s not realistic.
It seems to me that we need to think about and picture these stories as realistic. Because isn’t that what the incarnation was and is about? Isn’t that the point, the meaning, the purpose of Jesus’ birth? God becomes incarnate, is born into the world as a human, as flesh and bone and blood, as a baby, born like every baby is born, a real birth. The fundamental truth of the incarnation of God in Jesus is that God’s overwhelming, amazing, indescribable love is born into the real. God becomes incarnate into the real, messy, chaotic, imperfect world we live in. God’s purposes are worked through real people, real people who were just like us. They were just like us. Mary and Joseph didn’t live on some higher spiritual plane than the rest of us. They were just like us, with real talents and real flaws. They were just like us, with hopes and dreams and disappointments. God’s purposes were fulfilled through people just like us. God’s love was born into the world through people just like us. We are just like them. While the birth of the baby Jesus happened long ago, it seems to me that God’s love becomes incarnate again and again and again through people just like us. Isn’t that the wonder of the gospel, the good news? God’s love doesn’t require perfection. God’s love just requires real. God works God’s purposes through real people, in messy circumstances, in chaotic and uncertain times, because God’s love is born into what is real. Not perfect. Not idyllic. Real. Just like us. Let all of God’s very real children say, “Alleluia! Amen."