The story comes up in various guises – sometimes with a flight to Egypt; sometimes with angels; sometimes with wise men; and sometimes with all the elements mixed together. The one piece that’s usually overlooked is Matthew’s story of the angel coming to Joseph and announcing a child would be born.
The Annunciation that comes to Joseph is the older story in Matthew; and in Luke, a later written gospel, to Mary. The other two gospels, Mark and John, represent Jesus as simply the son of Mary and Joseph.
While Matthew and Luke tell very different stories of Jesus’ birth, each affirms a faith that Jesus’ birth was transcendent.
But this is where fact comes in. The story of the virgin birth of heroes and sages was widespread in the Hellenistic world. Both Artemis and Isis were said to be virgin queens; Alexander was said to have come from a virgin birth. Are all these myths or are they fact?
And here’s another fact: the announcement came at a stage in Joseph and Mary’s relationship when they were legally married but before they had begun to live together. That was the tradition at that time.
And what about the announcement to Joseph? Doesn’t it make you wonder how he took the whole thing? Here he was, getting a home ready for a woman, and he finds out she is pregnant. Does he divorce her quietly? But then what will happen to her? He must have loved her – wouldn’t he worry that something like stoning would happen to her if others found out she was pregnant?
But the angel comes in a dream and says don’t worry – the Holy Spirit did it. And that makes it easier somehow? Wouldn’t Joseph have had a few negative thoughts about the whole thing? But he had faith and followed the angel’s message and opened himself to mystery.
Joseph is the image of a pious man who says yes to God and the image of a loving, human father.
Now, about Mary. Here’s some facts: The basis for Mary’s rise is the Church and its edicts. The Second Council of 381 proclaimed her a perpetual virgin; in 431 the church gave her the title “Mother of God; in 1854, the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed; and in 1954, the church named her Queen of Heaven and in 1964, the Queen of the Church. Whew. All this for a simple peasant girl who said yes.
(Here’s a simply irreverent comment – that reminds me of Nancy Regan saying, “Just say no” to avoid the domino effect.)
But what does this all have to do with us and with our journey? It’s a Christmas story – that’s all.
But it’s not all. Here’s what I wonder. Do we put Mary and Joseph and Jesus on pedestals so we don’t have to see each other as holy beings? If those three are elevated beyond human capabilities, can mere humans possibly match those qualities?
Here’s another thing I wonder: did the church elevate Mary because humans need to honor and hold some kind of holy feminine presence and by elevating this one woman, other woman were safely left in their lowly state?
There’s the battle between faith and fact. Which fact? And which faith?
Christmas is a time to remember – and a reminder to live our own transcendent birth. There is no one quite like us in the world; we are all called to be holy beings; our lives are steeped in mystery.
That’s what Christmas calls us to do: live the mystery. If we see life as a mystery, miracles will unfold.