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Advent 4, Year A, 22.12.2013
Isa 7.10-16: young woman with child – to be named Imanuel
Ps 89.1-7, 16-18: v. 16 son of man,   v. 17 give us life
Romans 1.1-7: modified, mini-gospel summary
Matt 1.18-25: (1129)  

Eternal God, as Mary waited for the birth of your Son, so we wait for his coming in glory;
bring us through the birth pangs of this present age to see, with her, our great salvation
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
 

What shall we be celebrating?

          In three days’ we shall celebrate the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth.   We know the feast was celebrated in the 4th-century AD in the Western Church, especially in Rome and North Africa .  However it is uncertain exactly where and when it originated.  It is possible that its placing here in December may have been influenced by the winter solstice.  But unlike Easter and Pentecost, which have Jewish roots, this is purely a Christian feast.  So what is it that we shall be celebrating?  Or to put it more pointedly, what is it that you and I in the 21st century basically believe that we shall be celebrating?  It is certainly celebrating the birth of a baby boy, but what more?

          You may well have heard of the prolific novelist named Philip Pullman who happens to be an atheist.  In one of his novels he kills off God.   Some time ago Robin and Anne offered to loan me one of Philip Pullman’s novels in the series His Dark Materials.  I said, ‘No, thank-you,’ because I was busy doing other things at the time.  So when Dorothy and I were on her birthday cruise in the western Mediterranean last month, I went to the ship’s library to see what books it had by Pullman.  The only one I could find was titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. 

          In this book which Pullman calls a novel, he basically follows the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel with bits added from the other gospels and at least one story from one of the so-called infancy gospels that were written in the second century AD.

          In the book Mary has two sons, one named Jesus the other named Christ.  Christ loves his brother Jesus and looks out for him.  Christ is approached by what he takes to be an angel, who tells him he is to write down all that his brother says and does.  On one Sabbath Jesus makes clay pigeons, which is breaking the Sabbath rest, so Christ makes the inanimate pigeons into live ones that fly away, thus averting trouble with the authorities.  The mysterious angelic figure suggests to Christ that he could well invent things about Jesus.  After Jesus is crucified and buried the so-called angel tells Christ, who strongly resembles his brother, to make an appearance before Jesus’ followers, and thus, in Pullman’s book, the story arises that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

          And that is the end of the book.  The overall theme of the book is that what we call the Church has overly defined what must be believed.  For example, what about the Virgin Birth?  Is this of the essence of Christian belief?  The great William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the onset of World War II, certainly had doubts about it.

          The scriptures are primarily confessional, not factual per se.  In effect, much of their witness is couched in poetic images which are not literally true, but which convey real meaning and value.  So let us look at two of today’s readings with this in mind.

          Our passage from Isaiah concerns Ahaz, king of Judah, the southern kingdom in the latter part of the 8th century BC.  He faces a militarily dangerous situation, and Isaiah is telling him to stay steadfast, for the threat will have passed by the time the child eats solid food and knows right from wrong.  When the book of the prophet Isaiah was translated from the Hebrew into the Greek version known as the Septuagint, today’s passage concerning a pregnant woman used the word parthenos, meaning ‘virgin’, which goes beyond what the Hebrew meant.  It is obvious why Matthew picked up the passage from the Greek, with its mention of Immanuel, and applied it to Jesus. 

         
Now let us take Matthew’s setting.  Matthew has begun his gospel with the declaration that Jesus, as the true Adam, is Son of Abraham, Son of David and the Christ, who will bring to fulfilment justice, mercy and faith, the deep things of the Torah (23.23).  He then gives Jesus a stylized genealogy of three sets of 14 generations each that traces him from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and from the Exile to the Christ.  In this list of male names it is very striking that Matthew has carefully included five mothers: Tamar, who was ravaged by her father Judah, who mistook her for a prostitute, Rahab the harlot, Ruth the Moabite, then the one Matthew calls ‘the wife of Uriah’, that is, Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and finally Mary, the mother of Jesus. All five of them have been placed in uneviable roles but whom God has used, in the biblical narratives, which makes a very meaningful setting for today’s gospel which immediately follows.

          Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic and one of the foremost NT scholars of the second half of the 20th century, wrote a magisterial book of 600 pages entitled The Birth of the Messiah.  He points out that in the OT we have such divine interventions as the birth of Isaac to the aged Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Samuel to the barren Hannah.  He basically concludes that the Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives are not factual history but are rather drawing upon OT and Jewish traditions, especially concerning the births of Moses, Isaac and Samuel.  Brown says, and I quote, these are ‘all woven together to dramatize the conception and birth of the Messiah who was God’s Son’, end quote (p. 561).  I personally would change the last few words from ‘who was God’s Son’ to ‘who was called to be God’s Son’, for it is Jesus’ total dependence upon God as Abba that enabled others to call him Son of God, the fulfilment of Israel’s calling in the covenant, the one who shows forth God in everything he does and says.  Whatever else one may say or believe about the infancy narratives, they hammer home the point that all we see in the human being, Jesus, is God’s doing from the word go.

          Above all, Mary and Joseph must have done a superb job of raising Jesus to be a human being in such a close relationship with God that people recognized in him the fulfilling of Israel ’s calling as Son of God.  That I would say, is the rock-bottom, indeed the copper-bottomed belief that we must hold as Christians.  How much more we hold to is up to us, but whatever that is, it must not obscure the central NT witness to Jesus as embodying the supreme fulfilment of the God-intended humanity to which we are all called, for he is indeed the pioneer and perfecter of our faith., our Immanuel, God with us.

 

 

[Luke has the stories of the angelic annunciation to Mary and the host of angels appearing to the shepherds, two tales which highlight special divine intervention.  But on the other hand, it is Luke who tells of Jesus growing up as a boy, increasing in wisdom and strength and in favour with God and man.]