Fourth Sunday of Advent - 2022
Charles A. Bobertz
In the early centuries of the Christian church there arose many apocryphal stories that filled in the gaps, so to speak, about the birth and early childhood of Jesus. One of these legends, found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (second century), tells the story of the boy Jesus playing with his friend Zeno on a roof. When Zeno accidentally fell from the roof and was killed, the boy’s parents accused Jesus of having thrown him down. So Jesus promptly raised Zeno from the dead so that the boy could testify to his parents that Jesus had not thrown him down!
Legends such as this story of Zeno are often fanciful, but they do serve a purpose. They make us wonder about what the Gospels do not tell us even as we read what they do tell us. In our Gospel reading today we have the story of Jesus’ birth according to Matthew. The drama of the story is whether Joseph will take his betrothed wife Mary into his home when she was found to be already pregnant. In ancient Israel a couple was considered married when the betrothal was announced. The presumption, of course, is that Mary’s child is from another man and so she has committed adultery. And since we know that the punishment for adultery could have been stoning (recall the famous story of the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11), Joseph is literally choosing to save Mary’s life by divorcing her “quietly.” The angel in Joseph’s dream tells him the truth, that Mary’s child was fathered by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Mary’s child is like Adam, fathered directly by God rather than a human father. Mary’s virginity is not about her virginity and purity (though she has not sinned) so much as it is about Jesus’ direct creation as a new humanity by means of the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2). But what about, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story?” Surely Joseph telling folks in Bethlehem that the pregnant Mary’s child was created “directly from God” would not have been believed. By taking Mary into his home Joseph would have been the object of ridicule and scorn. Much like Jesus in John’s story of the adulteress, Joseph may even have been accused of letting an adulteress off the hook. So because Matthew does not tell us, we have to imagine what happened to Joseph when he did take the pregnant Mary into his home. And this imagining helps us to appreciate his courage. It also helps us to recognize that in creating the new Adam, Jesus, God has given us a new chance to honor the creation and one another in the way God intended at the very beginning. This is Jesus, God with us, in a new beginning, a new creation.