“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. (Read the whole passage)
The 4th Sunday of Advent is one that rolls is over to Christmas. While, this year we are in the unusual circumstance that there will be a full week between Advent 4 and Christmas Day. Next year for example, the 4th Sunday of Advent is Christmas Eve morning!
Advent then is a long as it can be with 28 days this year. And with still a week to go before Christmas, we get to sit with the story that we alway hear on the 4th Sunday a little longer than usual. The last Sunday in Advent is always the chance to hear the story of Mary’s pregnancy, and Mary and Joseph’s response to this life-changing news.
The announcement of Mary’s pregnancy by the messenger angels is always a turn from the preceding weeks of Advent, from the warnings about the end of time, from John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and then questioning the legitimacy of the Messiah from prison. It is also movement within our Advent theme of light in the darkness, taking us from a the grand size of God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world, into the cosmos, to come like a thief in the night, to straighten out the crooked paths, to cure the sick and raise the dead… Advent 4 is movement way from those big things, to the small space of Mary’s body, to the intimate relationship of Mary and Joseph’s engagement.
The story of Mary’s conception is a familiar one, although the version we hear today is less familiar. Rather than the Luke birth story, the beloved one we hear each Christmas that begins “in those days a decree went out from emperor Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered”, we hear Matthew’s version. Brief and to the point. There are no angels who appear to Mary today, but instead to Joseph. There is no visit to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, but just a dream and a command to faithfulness.
And if you caught it at it the end, Jesus is born in Matthew’s version of the story. No shepherds or angels. No stable or manger, no pondering of Mary. No animals or drummer boy, although those aren’t in Luke’s version either. Matthew just gives us what we need to know and then picks up the expanded story with the magi, which we hear at Epiphany.
This doesn’t really sound like the story that we know, or that the carols sing about or that the made-for-TV-movies tell. It is a version of a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way. It opens our eyes anew to something we thought we knew well.
In our final advent weeks, our eyes have been opened anew to the dark places of the world. The theme of light in the darkness has reminded us that seeing the dark places is the first step in seeing the light.
One dark place more than others has been revealed to us this week. As the war in Syria intensifies, we bore witness in the news this week to the siege of Aleppo. The hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle have been telling their stories on social media, even giving their final goodbyes with bombs exploding in the background. Human rights organizations and NGOs have called upon the warring factions and the global community to action. And even after ceasefires are called, they are promptly broken. It is a complex and messy conflict between factions where there are no clear good guys or bad guys. Where both sides are using civilians and civilians casualties as negotiating chips.
Now after years of civil war in Syria, reports of violent conflict, millions of refugees flowing into surrounding nations and then into Europe, the rise of the Islamic State and now the indiscriminate bombings and summary execution of civilians, Syria has become the great humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century.
So what does the darkest place in our time have to do with an unmarried couple receiving news of an unexpected pregnancy 2000 years ago.
Well the world of Joseph and Mary was not that different than ours. And no, not our Canadian countryside where we imagine the holy family showing up in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen on Christmas Eve. Rather, Nazareth where Joseph decides to remains faithful to Mary despite her pregnancy is only 593 kilometres from Aleppo. The distance between here and Regina, or even closer than the distance to Minneapolis.
And like the trapped citizens of Aleppo, Mary and Joseph were ruled by a ruthless despot in King Herod, a puppet installed by virtue of his birth, much like Bashir Al Assad. Their home had been invaded by a foreign empire in Rome, much like occupying Russians. Their world was one drawn regularly into conflict as religious zealots tried again and again to spur violent uprisings in order to overthrow the the ruling powers, much like the rebels. All too often these uprisings only result in needless civilian death. Mary and Joseph almost certainly knew what it was like to exist between violently conflicting forces, never knowing when the chaos might erupt around them.
If Mary and Joseph were to be found today, we might imagine it would be in a barn on the prairies, or a back alley in New York, or sleepy neighbourhood in Sweden or an apartment block in Beijing. But perhaps today, Mary and Joseph are in Aleppo (Jesus was born hardly a stone’s throw away after all). The unborn Christ child would be dodging bombs and bullets in a war zone.
But it isn’t just the physical location, it is location within the human condition. If we listened to the Christmas carols and made-or-TV-movies, Mary and Joseph would exist in sentiment and nostalgia. They would be characters that we play in pageants or that we put up in nativity scenes. They wouldn’t be real, they would be nice ideas or warm fuzzy feelings.
Except Mary and Joseph aren’t characters in a pageant. They are the real people chosen by the God of light who shows up in dark places. Mary is a real pregnant woman, with expanding body, morning sickness and cankles. Joseph is a real fiancé whose beloved wife-to-be is pregnant with another’s child. The holy couple are real parents simply trying to survive in an unbelievably dangerous world.
But most importantly, the promised child, the light that is placed in Mary’s womb, is a real baby, kicking and turning, readying mother and father for the reality that they will soon be responsible for a life other than their own, in a world where life is disregarded like piece of garbage.
And this is all God’s point.
This is all God’s work, to send a real baby, born to real parents, in a dark and very real place in the world…in order to be our real Messiah. Because our real sins need real saving.
Only a real Messiah can bring light to our real condition, to the sin and death of the dark places around us. While the nostalgia of carols and movies, of nativity scenes and pageants, sometimes help us to tell the story, they are not what our Advent waiting needs. They are not the version of Messiah we need.
God sends a real Messiah because our real wars and real violence and real disregard for each other needs real light. God comes into the darkest places because our detachment and avoidance of the dark places needs to be revealed. God comes into real bodies, born to real parents because this is how we all enter into the world, because the danger of life is the real risk of death. The Messiah comes in order to join with creation in the starkest, realest ways there are. To be born like we are born, to live like we live, to die like we die. All that so we can rise like Messiah’s rises.
Our dark world is not much different than the one of Mary and Joseph. We need the light as much as ever. And so that is why hear the story of God’s coming again today, and we hear it anew.
God is coming not only to a surprised couple in Nazareth, but God is coming into this world, here and now.
Coming to a prairie barn, far away from places that matter.
God is coming to the back alleys in New York.
God is coming to the sleepy suburbs of Sweden.
God is coming to apartment blocks in Beijing.
And God is coming to civilians hiding out in Aleppo.
God is coming to bring light to our dark world, Messiah is on the way to show us that war, and violence and suffering do not define us. Messiah is coming to save us from sin and death.
Today, we are about to roll over from Advent into Christ, and yet there is still a week of Advent darkness and waiting left to do. And in the darkness of our world, of places like Aleppo or closer to home, especially when things seem darker than ever… Messiah is coming with the light.