A reflection on Matthew 1:18-2:6 for Friday, December 25, 2020
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
Matthew 1:18-2:6 (NRSVA)
In Matthew’s account of the incarnation it is the events that surround the birth of the Messiah that are highlighted. Although our reading opens with ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way’, it takes us some time to get to the actual delivery.
The event itself is easily overlooked – especially for speed-readers. In fact the moment of incarnation reads – at least in part – as a defence of Mary’s and Joseph’s restraint.
Yet there it is: ‘…she…bor(n)e a son; and he named him Jesus.’
One might expect more detail. We learn more here about Joseph – something of a surrogate father – than of the Messiah. We even learn more about Herod and the wise men than Jesus.
Of course, this observation is not to play down the circumstances surrounding this anticipated birth. Rather the surrounding characters point us to – and beyond – the moment of incarnation.
We already know a quite a lot about the lineage of Joseph (perhaps disappointingly, we know more about him than Mary). Here, in addition, we learn that Joseph was ‘a righteous man’. Notably – and as a result of this ‘righteousness’ – he did not follow the letter of the Mosaic law and expose Mary, his apparently unfaithful wife-to-be. He is, surprisingly, a celebrated person who puts people – and their dignity – before the letter of the law.
He is an early pointer to the law of love.
Herod also reveals something of the story Matthew will narrate. Even at this early stage of this telling, we see that this newborn is a threat to power. Herod – and the entire holy city of Jerusalem – are ‘frightened’ by the news of this birth. Although they can pinpoint the location of Jesus’ prophet-predicted birth – they still respond with terror.
Others invested in the powers of this world will respond similarly before this account is complete.
Similarly the ‘wise men’ also reveal a theme that will develop around this child. They are clearly not from around here. All we really know is that they come from the ‘East’. It is enough, however, to indicate an international angle to this story. Though they are foreigners, they expectantly seek this one.
This will be a story for all the world – not just for Bethlehem, Judah, and Israel.
There are two other – even broader previews here. The prophet’s foretelling reminds us that this is no spontaneous idea on the part of God. The incarnation has been planned and promised.
Finally, there is ‘…his star at its rising…’ All creation is revealing this birth.
So as you celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, may you remember the different responses that surrounded the incarnation. After all, the Gospel is not told for your entertainment.
Matthew writes for your response!
Which character surrounding the birth of Jesus do you most identify with – Mary, Joseph, Herod, or the ‘wise men’? Do you identify with the prophet or even with creation?
What is your response to Jesus this Christmas?