Tag Archives: Mary and Joseph

Mary and Joseph of Aleppo

Matthew 1:18-25

“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.

 

Advertisements

Mary and Joseph in Al Zataari

*Part 1 of this series is found here.

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Read the whole passage here)

 

Sermon

As he walked along the rough and sandy road, Yusuf looked up to see his fiancée. She was sitting in the back of a cart being pulled by a horse. She gave him a gentle smile and then closed her eyes once again to try and sleep. Every time the cart hit a bump in the road, the whole thing bounced and shook. Undoubtedly, Mara was not getting much rest. Rest that she, and the child within her womb, needed.

Mara and Yusuf had joined with the caravan of people walking south to Jordan. Mara was sitting in the cart with few elderly people, some children and another pregnant woman. The two had left everything behind, their home, their jobs, their family, their lives. Yusuf was angry at himself for having to make Mara embark on this long journey while she was pregnant. He had hoped that they could have stayed a little longer in their homes. He wanted the baby to be born in Damascus, but the bombs were dropping and the government troops had ordered everyone out. Anyone who was suspected of being a rebel was being thrown in prison or worse, and people were turning on each other, accusing friends and neighbours of rebellion in order to stay in the government’s good books.

Yusuf had told Mara that he would find them a place to hide out, where she could have the baby safely in Damascus. They would only have to stay a few weeks. But Mara had insisted they leave. She didn’t want their baby to be born into such a dangerous and chaotic world. And so here they were, traveling in winter on a hard and rocky road, from Damascus, Syria to Al Zataari, Jordan so that they could make a new life, one free from bombs and guns and soldiers. Yusuf was not happy about it, but every time Mara gave him that small smile of hers, he was relieved that she had insisted on leaving.

______________________________

Zataari was bustling full of people. There were NGO workers, peacekeepers, kids running around in packs, adults visiting, people working. Zataari was the same distance from Nazareth that Bethlehem was, the home of King David. Yusuf was a coptic Christian, and the family legend was that he was a descendant of King David, not that this was something to advertise back home.

Yusuf and Mara were hoping to find some of Yusuf’s relatives already in Jordan. He  heard that his cousins had already fled Syria. But as he asked around, no one seemed to know his family, it was a long shot in a town of 80,000 refugees. Yusuf was worried that they might have to make camp on the outskirts. He only considered this as his last option, for the threat of thieves and bandits was too great, especially with Mara being almost ready to have her baby.

Finally someone who seemed to be a distant cousin offered Mara and Yusuf a room to themselves…. Well kind of… it was a tattered tent with a faded UNHCR logo on it… it looked like goats and sheep had been living there before they came. Mara and Yusuf would have to make due.

 

Yusuf led Mara to their temporary dwelling and they settled in. Mara didn’t seem mind, she was just grateful to sit somewhere that wasn’t bouncing down a road. Yusuf’s distant cousin had given them some food and blankets and sweaters. Not long after they had sat down to eat, Mara dropped her food and grabbed her belly. Yusuf knew what this meant, the baby was coming.

Throughout the day and well into the night, Yusuf stayed by Mara’s side. Helping her as best he could through the labour. Finally, through gritted teeth, Mara told him,

“The Baby is going to come now”. Yusuf got into position as she gave her final pushes and then all of a sudden into his hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Yusuf gave the baby to Mara, it was cold and there was nothing to wrap the child in. So, Yusuf took one of the sweaters his cousin has given to him and tore it into strips. Some he dipped in water and helped Mara to clean the child and with the rest they wrapped up the baby warm and tight.

Once the baby had been cleaned and fed, Mara and the boy slept. A short time later, while it was still dark, Mara woke up and called for Yusuf to take the baby. She wanted to clean herself up from the birth. She couldn’t quite stand on her own, so Yusuf put the baby down in the nearest convenient place — a long metal bucket or trough full of straw, probably for the goats. Yusuf was so proud of Mara, she had come all this way and now given birth, he was all of a sudden overjoyed that he had not left her when he had found out that she was pregnant, and he was overjoyed that she had made them escape the dangers of home.

______________________________

As Yusuf pulled Mara to her feet, they heard voices coming near their tent. At first Yusuf thought it might be his cousin coming to check in on them in the early morning, but there were several voices… several men. Yusuf peered out of the tent into the darkness and coming towards him was a group of men with weapons, with sticks and staffs, and rods and slingshots.They were boisterous, loud men… Yusuf’s anxiety grew and his heart began to pound. These men must be a gang of thieves.

“Stay in here” he told Mara and he pulled out one of the few personal items he had brought with him from Damascus, his carpenter’s hammer. He was ready to die for wife-to-be and child.

As the men got closer they quieted themselves, Yusuf was ready to fight. He put himself between the tent and the men, blocking their way. He raised his hammer above his head to signal that he would not allow anyone to come in. But the men stopped and only one came forward.

“Is he here?” the man asked excitedly. “The one the messengers told us about? The Messiah? The child in the manger? We were watching our sheep not to far from here, and were told by messengers – Angels  –  that we would find the great prophet here”. Yusuf’s jaw dropped, along with his hammer, in shock. How could anyone know that Mara had given birth already? Angels? Messiah? He turned and looked back to the tent. Mara was standing at the door, nodding her head and beckoning the young men to come forward. One by one the men came and knelt before the baby, saying prayers of thanksgiving as Mara watched on, looking totally unsurprised that these rough men had arrived. Yusuf’s head was spinning.

Finally, when the men had finished looking at the child, NO when they had finished worshipping the child, Yusuf looked to Mara who was holding a squirming Isa in her arms.

“Angels, Messiah, a baby in a manger! Our son is special isn’t he?”

Mara looked at Yusuf for a long moment. She thought about all that she had been through in the last 9 months. The visit from the angel and surprise pregnancy, the shame of being unmarried followed by Yusuf’s continued willingness to marry her, the time she had with her cousin Eliza while she gave birth to her miracle child in her old age and now the journey to Zataari. Mara was amazed at how her life had been so dramatically changed, how this baby had come into her world and changed everything. This tiny baby that could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless she kept him warm with her own body heat, who could not be fed unless it was she who gave him food, who could not be alive unless she worked to keep him so. This little child had come into her life and nothing was the same as it was.

Yet before tonight, the message from that first Angel had not seemed so real and grand. For certain she had been pregnant, but for her child to be the Messiah… well that was something she could not imagine. Yet the Shepherds had come, they told them of messenger Angels coming to the fields, telling them about the birth of her child, of this tiny little baby boy, so vulnerable to the world, of how he would be their saviour!

Returning to Yusuf’s question, was their son special?

“Come and look into his eyes Yusuf, see for yourself”, Mara finally said.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair; ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at this little miracle in their arms, Mara and Yusuf saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A miracle bigger than they could hold. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the little family stood at the door of their tent, watching this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced with each other across the sky, Mara could almost hear voices singing from above and she listened to the heavens.

Yusuf whispered to his son,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Amen.