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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before December 22, 2013


Matthew 1:18-25

18 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

What I am Learning:

In the little church of my growing up years, to talk about sex was really taboo. Yet regularly we sang songs about a virgin who gave birth. This could be because, they thought, that Jesus unlike the rest of us was conceived without the aid of a penis and all that sex business. Mary’s pure virginity was the foundation from which holy Jesus emerged. The opposite was also true, it seemed—that the rest of us were not born of virgins and therefore not holy.

Augustine famously equated sexual desire with sin and said that sex passed along “Adams sin” to other generations. Thus, Jesus birth by non-sexual means was God’s way of breaking the cycle and finding a means of salvation for human beings. Augustine felt a lot of shame for his youthful days of sowing wild oats. Additionally, he certainly reflected many people’s feelings of shame about bodies and the whole sex thing. Maybe his theology won because good church people  got to talk about “sex” a lot.

In this case, Augustine may have reflected sin itself rather than reflecting on it. I would say that human beings have a tendency to reject life as-it-is: life as creatures who are conceived, are born, grow, eat, poop, breathe and mature into creatures who can participate in the conception of a new generation until they themselves die. As Douglas John Hall says, sin is the denial or rejection of our creatureliness.

I seriously doubt that any of these body-despising attitudes were a part of Matthew’s intention. Over the last 20 centuries, we have made a mess of Jesus birth narratives as we have projected our own body-despising attitudes on the text. Jewish people told the story in which God said the creation was “good, very good” as a central part of their deep belief that the earth and its creatures, with all their creatureliness, is good. They first told the first creation story while enslaved in Babylon to counter the Babylonian story that humans were created out of a violent act to serve as slaves.

The deep meaning of what would later become the theology of incarnation, that in Jesus God became a human being, is not to tell us that our bodies (with all of our hungers and sexual desires) are bad, but rather just the opposite: that God is willing to fully embraces human life and invites us to embrace our life. For me, God’s embrace of our life is a key part of the healing that is “salvation.”

I do think that humans tend to sin: that is to reject human life as it is. This has powerful and negative effects on all. I think it captivates us. I also think that cultures (and churches) can make this problem worse by body-despising theologies.

But I trust more deeply in the beauty of the creation and the power of God to remind us that we are created in the image of God and of God’s healing to restore us to the full dignity that God intends for our living, breathing, dying life. What happened in Jesus was not part of God’s attempt to despise human bodies, but rather to reconcile us to our own body and thus to the blessed-material of the earth.

After all of this, the word in the Greek is not “virgin” anyway, it is rather “a young woman of marriageable age.”

What might the whole “virgin” thing have meant to people in Matthew’s community then?

As typical of a good writer like Matthew, many things at once.

First, Augustus Caesar, according to legend and the official propaganda of the Roman Empire, was the son of the God Apollo. This is why it read “Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus” on the Roman denarius that Jewish leaders would later show Jesus in the temple. This was a way of saying that “if you fight the Romans, Caesar’s daddy and his friends will soon be your enemies. You don’t want Apollo, the God of war, to be your enemy do you?”

Second, throughout Matthew’s writing he quotes one section of the Hebrew scripture after another. He takes the meaning of those texts and pulls them into his own context.

An example of this from our own day is the TEA Party. Yes, I know! They called themselves the TEA party to refer back to the day when Bostonians dumped tea into Boston harbor to nonviolently protest a tax on tea that they had not agreed to. The TEA Party chose this event to say that in our time a similar kind of problem was happening and that it is time for a change. In reality, our modern day TEA Party is a corporately initiated, marketed and funded movement – very different from those who dumped the East India Company’s tea in the harbor. But you can see what they are trying to do: claim to be acting out of one of the key narratives of our nation.

So when Matthew quotes Isaiah 7, (below) he is saying that the situation into which Jesus is born is like the one they were facing at that time: that the leaders of Israel should trust God and endure some difficult years to set the stage for better years ahead. The child named “Immanuel” is a sign of this promise.

Third, for Jewish people, every child was born of the Holy Spirit. The man gives the white semen, the woman gives the red semen, and the Holy Spirit gives breath/spirit. In this story, the man’s part is excluded – I think – not because sex or bodies are bad, but because it forms a counter story to that of Augustus Caesar.

So in this little story, Matthew is inviting people to see God’s hope for them in the midst of dangers and difficulties, and that the God of Israel acts among the poor and those of low-status to turn things upside down; that things are not as God would want them and that things can change and will change in Jesus.

Lastly, it is important to remember what the name “Jesus” is all about. Nobody every called him “Jayesus.” His name is really “Joshua.” His name probably sounded like “Yehoshuah.” We get his name today from an English version of the Greek version of the Aramaic version of the Hebrew name for Joshua. Ugh!

Joshua was the one who brought the People of Israel into the promised land after 40 years in the desert. Jesus is going to be a leaders similar to Joshua and restore people to their homeland.

Now let me be clear. Matthew wants us to understand that God acted decisively in and through Jesus. There is something special here. Matthew wants his own community to reorient themselves to Jesus. He is saying that God’s will and God’s way for human beings to live is embodied by Jesus. I just don’t think that Matthew, a good Jewish theologian, would ever imply that human bodies are bad.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be daily reoriented, by God’s free gift, to God’s Way of Mutuality which is embodied in Jesus. That Way is beyond us but it is also in us as Jesus Christ continues to live among and in us. Matthew ends by Jesus telling the disciples to continue his messianic work of announcing and embodying God’s love in the world.

The Isaiah Quote:

Isaiah 7:10-17

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

17The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

A blog from my seminary teacher on Isaiah:

Some Insightful Blogs: