The Sunday after Christmas Day


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Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten son…
Galatians 4:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew’s approach to the birth of Jesus is, with the exception of the angel, rather male and down-to-earth, stressing the importance of the paternal line through Joseph in spite of Jesus being born of the Holy Ghost. Joseph, equally concerned about his family’s honour and Mary’s reputation, is determined to keep her pregnancy secret until he is told of its origin. In contrast with Mary in Luke, Joseph receives the message from the Angel in a dream and so says nothing. Matthew, as usual, justifies these events with a quote from Scripture, Isaiah 7:14, though whether there is any significance in the customary virginity of an unmarried Jewish girl is questionable. Joseph marries Mary and it is interesting to note that Matthew does not rule out the possibility that Jesus had younger siblings.

Paul is not quite so straightforward because of his characteristic clumsiness with analogy; the first sentence of the Epistle serves only to confuse except insofar as it establishes that there is a state of childhood in which we are helpless. Essentially, what he is saying is that the Jews (as representative in some way of humanity) were subject to The Law until they were liberated from it by the birth and death of Jesus to become adopted sons of the Father. As sons, we receive the Holy Spirit and are no longer servants but heirs. The Collect takes up the theme of regeneration and adoption in the Holy Spirit.

Not surprisingly, the key themes in the readings concern parentage. Joseph’s mind is put at rest by the Angel but also indirectly by Matthew’s introductory genealogy which at a critical point involves questionable sexual relations: Rahab, possibly the prostitute (Matthew 1:5); Ruth, a Moabitess (Matthew 1:6); and Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6) the mother of Solomon after her marriage to David who had committed adultery with her and then ordered the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. A more fundamental and uncomfortable question concerns the doctrine of the ‘Virgin Birth’. Is this an instance of Matthew finding a proof text for events or is it, conversely, Matthew’s misreading of Isaiah which determines the shape of his narrative? As the doctrine is contained in the Creed we must necessarily assent to it but the question must still be asked; all statements of doctrine, no matter how hallowed, being humanly formed, are provisional. The oddity of this doctrine is that it tends towards the very dualism that the incarnation denies.

The other issue of parentage which looms large in the Collect and Epistle is our own. The notion of adoption presents us with a theological conundrum. We are all children of God Our Parent but when, in the figure of Adam, we were expelled from Eden, did we lose that parentage as creatures of the creator? Paul asserts that we did but goes on to say that we have been adopted as the result of the incarnation. The Collect, in line with Reformation theology, situates the adoption in the Crucifixion. The theological understanding of our childhood in God may be put in a simpler form than the theology of adoption; just because we ‘fell’ or turned away from God or, in Paul’s terminology, became subject to The Law, it does not mean that we ceased to be God’s children. A further issue with the adoption metaphor is that it forces us to ask whether all humanity was adopted as the result of the incarnation or was this a privilege accorded only to Christians or only to some Christians. The first question was hardly addressed by Reformation theologians but the second became critical, particularly to Calvin who developed the idea that only “the elect” were saved by Christ’s death.

The Collect, first read on Christmas Day, now falls into its proper context by saying that God sent his son “to take our nature upon him”. Whatever the complexities of Matthew’s narrative and Paul’s generative theology, the fact of the incarnation stands out in monumental relief. As already noted, the essence of this doctrine is that it unites rather than divides the human and divine, a concept so difficult for the early Church that it took some four centuries to crystallise into the “One person, two natures” doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon (451ad). There were extremists of both sorts asserting that Jesus was not human or only human and others, bearing in mind the Grecian deities, who proposed that he was a demi-god. The very difficulty of the formulation, its quasi political nature and its Greek philosophical context should all warn us of the fragility of our human metaphors for divine mysteries. We are too apt to recite The Creed in much the same way as we recite the multiplication table but each phrase of it, for all its provisionality, was hard won. One way of looking at the incarnation is that the very difficulty of humanity coming to terms with Godhead was critically mediated by Jesus who literally embodied God’s self communication with all mankind. Again, this understanding emphasises the universality of the act rather than particularising it to all or some Christians.

Opinions will differ but we might be comforted by the thought that Jesus was not an only child. In accordance with Chalcedonian thinking we must try to remember the humanity of our Saviour who, like all of us, needed the warmth and security of family love. It is almost too easy to write: our Saviour who, like all of us.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How important is the distinction between a theology which says that humanity, although flawed, never ceased to be the children of God and the theology of incarnational adoption?
  2. Was Jesus born for all humanity or just some of us?
  3. What do we mean when we say that doctrines are “provisional metaphors”?
  4. How do you imagine Joseph?
  5. If Jesus had brothers and sisters…

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