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by the Holy Spirit"
Most of us are probably familiar with the Christmas story as told in Luke, but there are other approaches to the Christmas story, Matthew’s for example.
However, if you look at the opening to the first chapter of Matthew, you will notice that this is not particularly interesting reading. All it is is a list.
But that list is the family tree of Jesus Christ, traced back to Abraham; and it is Matthew's evidence for his argument that the Christ is now due.
And then Matthew proceeds to tell us,
"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."
Now, Matthew's story leaves much to be desired at this point. For according to Luke, the angel Gabriel said to Mary, "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus."
And Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God."
But Joseph, according to Matthew, didn't know what was going on. So, "Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly."
But what, exactly, do marriage and divorce mean in all this? Well, according to historians the engagement had a particular legal status attached to it that made it almost identical to marriage; a one-year engagement was considered normal, and it constituted a part of the permanent marriage relationship.
However, there remained a distinction between engagement and marriage; and although Mary and Joseph were engaged, and in all other respects she was considered his wife, a sexual relationship would not have taken place until after the marriage, and in this particular situation, not until after the birth of Jesus.
So in one sense Joseph and Mary are married, but in another sense they are not. And when Matthew speaks of "dismissing" Mary, he is speaking of the breaking of the engagement.
Because if Mary gives birth, it will be evidence that she has conceived during the engagement.
But I have to wonder at Joseph's motives. Scripture tells us that he was unwilling to expose HER to public disgrace. But what of himself? Was he not also concerned with protecting himself and his own "good name"?
Or maybe this tells us something of the mores of the times and of the typical attitudes toward women in society.
"But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
But what must it have meant to Joseph to rear a child who would "save his people from their sins"? To be a savior is one thing: that was what the yearning for the messiah was all about. But "from their sins"? Was that the Messiah they were looking for? Was that the Messiah that Joseph was looking for?
So we know the mission of the child that Mary is carrying; but Matthew has further words of who this child is:
"All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" which means, "God is with us."
God has given an infinite gift. God moved from the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient position that is beyond our powers to understand, to that of a human person in the form of a small baby, born of a woman, just like all the rest of us.
But unlike all the rest of us, that small baby grew up to adulthood leading a life which carried a message that can change all our lives. Setting an example of unparalleled integrity, living to the DEATH the message he taught.
And for me, it is when I look at that life, when I look BEYOND the birth, that I come to truly understand what "conceived by the Holy Spirit" really means.
For just as in our lives we are genetic reflections of our parents and reflections of them in a great many other ways also, so Jesus was a reflection of God.
And just as we are both ourselves as separate persons AND our parents within us, so Jesus was both human and divine. But, just as we, while carrying our past within us, must live out our own lives, so Jesus, carrying divinity within himself, lived out his life as a human being, subject to all the pains and temptations of all humans.
But what if we moved that word "conception" out of the physical realm? What if we moved it instead to a spiritual realm? Indeed, I would hope that we are ALL, in some sense, conceived by the Holy Spirit when we consider our relationship with God.
"When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus."
This simple man of the House of David demonstrated some of the most powerful faith in the Bible. Joseph must feel like he is swimming upstream. He must defy social convention and proceed with marrying this woman who is with child that is not his. And he must rely on the visitation of an angel and BELIEVE that this child is the answer to humanity.
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