Sunday 19th December 2010
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Matthew 1:18-25

Have you ever enjoyed that delicious experience of, quite by accident, overhearing people talking about you without knowing that you can hear? Well, it's only delicious if they're saying something nice; though it might be quite useful if they're saying something uncomplimentary as it gives you an insight into their thinking that they don't know you've got!

Today's Gospel is a bit like that for, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, traditionally focused on Mary, we only overhear an angelic instruction and Joseph's response. Matthew's Gospel was not written to complement the other three so, we have to keep Luke out of our minds at the moment, and assume that God found Mary worthy of being the Theotokos, the God-bearer. We have to assume because in Matthew, as in Mark, Mary never says anything, 'her indoors' is certainly seen but not heard. It is perhaps not insignificant that the two less narrowly Jewish Evangelists, Luke and John, give Mary a speaking part whereas Matthew and Mark don't.

We are not, of course, to criticise Matthew for this from our own perspective. We tend to think that the role of women has been progressively improved but it is more accurate to think of the age of male domination, the age of fighting, ploughing and lifting, as anomalous. Until quite recently in history women were paramount in culture because of their child-bearing. It was only when the role of males in procreation was recognised and when sedentary agriculture involved irrigation and organised warfare that males became culturally dominant; and, in our own day, males are hanging on to their traditional positions - not least in the Church - when the academic performance and social significance of women is rising inexorably. And we can expect the status of males to continue to fall as their biological and economic usefulness declines. Which brings us round to Joseph's biological usefulness. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy which culminates in Joseph who turns out not to be the father of Jesus because Matthew has hit upon a somewhat contested translation of Isaiah 7:14 which can be translated as "A young woman" will conceive or "A virgin" will conceive. Matthew tends to be somewhat wooden, and even wrong, in his Biblical citations, notably in Chapter 21:5-6 where he has Jesus sitting on two animals at the same time as he enters Jerusalem because Matthew reads the statements about the donkey and the colt as serial rather than mutually reinforcing; so on this occasion he opts for a narrow reading of the text.

Now this would not matter so much were it not for the fact that this doubtful translation has become Creedal as in: "born of the Virgin Mary" in the Apostles Creed and "was incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary" in the Nicene Creed. Here we have to be careful to separate the two propositions: you could be born by the power of the Holy Spirit acting through a male like Joseph without requiring a virgin birth. But the trouble is that Matthew is very explicit about Joseph's position, as Joseph would have known whether or not he had enjoyed intimate relations with his fiancée, a most unlikely eventuality.

For us, then, the core question is whether we want to take Matthew literally; and, if we don't, where does that leave our adherence to the Creeds? Well, given the problems we have as Christians at agreeing about anything, I say this with a heavy heart, but we really must have a close look at our Creeds as they not only present us with problems like the one we are thinking about but they could be said to leave out many things that we might want to have as part of our statement of belief, such as our commitment to Scripture and Sacrament and our core value of love.

In the meantime - and I suspect it will be a very long meantime - if you find the concept of the virgin birth either bewildering or alienating, I think it would be best to focus on the meaning of the narrative rather than on the literal terms in which it has been told without, of course, wishing to question the commitment of others to a literal interpretation.

What we overhear in Matthew is, in a sense, a conversation in Luke. Mary, without any explanation in Matthew, is deemed fit to bear Christ; but in Luke we learn why. It is because she unconditionally gives herself to God. Whether there was an actual angel in converse or whether she just knew in herself that she was a very special servant of God is, again, something we need to think about carefully, but the fact of her affirmation, dramatised in Luke and off-stage in Matthew, was a core component of the Christian tradition before the Evangelists wrote their accounts.

For us, now, there are, I think, three imperatives:

Unlike the secular Christmas we are about to enjoy, sacred celebrations require deep thought and an understanding of what we are doing and why. Whatever the complexities of its mechanics, Mary is the human vessel of the incarnation of our God in the person of Jesus. In giving a little thought and thanks for Mary in the coming week, let us remember that the Virgin Birth is less important than her glad consent to being the Theotokos.