21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Two Christmas books. The first is Rory Stewart’s The places in between. I’d like to use this to explore Joseph’s role as Jesus’ father. The second is The case against the sexual revolution by Louise Perry Christmas: I’d like to use this to offer some thoughts about parenthood and what was involved for both Mary and Joseph as Jesus’ parents.
So firstly, Rory Stewart’s The places in between. In 2002 Stewart walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal but could only walk-through Afghanistan once the Taliban had fallen: he began his journey there just 2 weeks after the regime changed. The places in between describes this Afghan leg of his travels: a journey that was not without great danger and which took Stewart into some of the most geographically inhospitable parts of the world. The people in some of the places he passed through had never travelled further than the next village. Roads are non-existent, wolves still threaten travellers, deep gorges cut through high mountains, snow is heavy and dangerous, food is extremely basic. But the thing that has struck me so far is that Rory Stewart only ever encountered men. Men, in this culture live in the public sphere whereas the lives of women are totally hidden.
21st century Afghanistan is not first century Galilee. Galilee at the time of Jesus was pretty multi-cultural – indeed, it was known as Galilee of the Gentiles. It had been forced to deal with the Greek and then Roman Empires and the practice of Judaism in the Galilean hills was probably not as strict as that in the regions around Jerusalem, but for all that women in ancient Israel had an honoured state (and probably more freedom than many of their sisters in the 21st century) there’s no getting around the fact that Jesus was born into a male dominated society. Which makes the Naming of Jesus which we mark today all the more significant because Joseph’s role was crucial.
You have 42 days register a birth in this country. For most of us this is an easy process that blinds us to the fact that registering a birth is a hugely significant moment. Registering a birth is hedged about with restrictions as to who can do it, what to do if a father is not to be named and what to do if the father insists on being recognised. Key to this process is, of course, the child’s mother but the gospels tell us that Joseph also played a part. Luke’s description of the naming of Jesus simply tells us ‘he was called Jesus’, but Matthew is more precise … for in his gospel it is Joseph who (obedient to God) steps forward and names him.
Joseph does no small thing in this patriarchal society in naming the child. He both protects Mary from shame and he brings Jesus under his care. Scholars detect both in the gospels and other writings from the first century an ongoing dispute about Jesus’ parentage. Mary is, of course, known to be his mother but an early slander against the Christians was that Jesus was illegitimate. Joseph steps into the breach here. He takes responsibility for the child – offering up his reputation to be shamed for jumping the gun on the formal wedding to Mary in the process. So his actions ask us questions in this New Year about our own responsibilities.
And then, secondly The case against the sexual revolution. Despite its title this is actually a book that affirms women but the blurb on the back of the book includes this quote ‘This…book challenges the reigning sexual orthodoxy of ‘anything goes’, showing the many uncounted costs it imposes on women. A must read for conservatives and feminists alike.’ The book’s final chapter is entitled ‘Marriage is good’ and this threw up some quotes about motherhood I’d like to share. The chapter highlights the problem that motherhood poses for liberal and radical feminists for whom individual freedom is the non- negotiable bottom line. If, as the book says ‘you value freedom above all else, then you must reject motherhood, since this is a state of being that limits a woman’s freedom in every possible way…(indeed) for the rest of her life.’ Later the author writes ‘the logic of individualism collapses upon contact with motherhood. The pregnant woman’s frame contains two people, neither of them truly autonomous. The unborn baby depends on the mother for survival…and for many years after birth a young child cannot be understood as an autonomous individual because without the devoted care of at least one adult, death is a certainty.’ And a final quote from Leah Libresco Sargeant ‘The liberal theory of the independent individual as the basic unit of society is full of exceptions …It would be fairer to say that dependence is our default state, and self sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need.’
Mary’s commitment to Jesus is already total. Motherhood has made this so: she and He are already bound together. But we can broaden that commitment (and dependence) out to include Joseph who has assumed the role of parent alongside Mary. This family, recognised according to the practice of Judaism on this eighth day after their child’s birth is now formally bound together. These first days of Jesus’ life are marked by His dependence upon Mary and Joseph but, in time, they will learn their dependence upon Him – just as we all do.
On this Feast Day we are invited to consider our responsibilities as members of Jesus’ family towards Him (yes) but also towards one another. And we recognise again the commitments that are ours and the mutual dependence (or interdependence) that seems written into society by a God who comes to us not ‘fully formed’ but as a child needing protection, care and nurture within a family.
Firstly, let us give thanks for all families where love and care and protection and nurture and faithfulness find a home. These things are of God and are not confined to His church. Let us be mindful of the vulnerability of mothers and their children and give thanks for those who support and encourage them through our local surgery, our toddler groups (and we remember Smuffies the group based here) and in our nurseries and schools. And let us not forget the many Dads who are doing their best, struggling to navigate what it means to be a good dad to their children: let us give thanks for them and pray for all young families trying to make their way in this community.
And then, mindful of the vulnerability of the infant Jesus, let us as His family remember that He binds His mission of bringing salvation to us, the church. He entrusts His name to us. We bear his name as Christians. What a huge responsibility he gives us! At the beginning of this New Year how are we doing in honouring that name both as individuals and as a church? Is our church family known for revealing His character? St Teresa said:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
May the salvation promised in His name grow amongst us and in this town in the months ahead.
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