There’s a lot to take in when you discover you’re pregnant – even in a planned pregnancy.
Actually, the more I think about it ’planned pregnancy’ has to be an oxymoron (similar to another expression I remember from that period in my life – making a ‘birth plan’!) There seems to be very little that’s planned or controlled about having a baby. Thinking about my three children; Zach was completely unexpected; Grace came much sooner than planned and getting pregnant with Miriam took so long we gave up and got a dog.
Which is how I know there’s a lot to take in when you discover you’re pregnant. I have told you this story before, but at Miriam’s 20-week ultrasound as they made measurements and pointed out various features I asked – not once but twice – “So, are those the back feet?”
There’s a lot to take in.
There are a number of different meanings for the phrase ‘take in.
- It refers to granting admittance, taking in a guest or someone needing refuge.
- It also refers to reducing in size: she took in the waist of her pants just after Christmas…
- It can mean including or comprising something: Our Matthew passage takes in the advent of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective.
- Or, colloquially, to deceive or swindle: Did Joseph feel taken in when he discovered that Mary was with child?
- And it can be used, as I used it above, for ‘trying to comprehend’: how Joseph must have struggled to take in the news that his wife was pregnant.
It is helpful for us to think of them as husband and wife because there is no direct English equivalent for the Greek word (mnesteuo) describing Joseph and Mary’s ‘status’ in verse 18. According to the custom of the day marriage was a two-step process. First was the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin) usually arranged by the parents that could be broken only by divorce (‘dismiss’ in verse 19 can also be rendered ‘divorce’). And then there was a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) sometimes a year later, often including a marriage feast, after which the husband took his wife home.
- Which bring us to another meaning for ‘take in’ specific to the culture of the day. In verse 20 the angel says to Joseph ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’. The word used here is paralambano meaning ‘to take in’; referring to what happens after the second step of marriage.
The drama of our passage takes place between these two events. Infidelity after betrothal was grounds for divorce and the honour code of the Middle East demanded that no man take possession of what belonged to another, including a child in the womb. Joseph experiences the painful human agony of having his dreams for the future shattered.
The writer of Matthew is fairly restrained in his description, but in the Protoevangelium of James, an extracanonical text from the 2nd century C.E, we get a much rawer emotional account. There, when Joseph sees Mary’s swollen belly, he hits himself in the face and throws himself of the ground, crying bitterly. He agonises over how to respond and confronts Mary asking her how she could betray him and God in this way.
This agonising is still present in Matthew, in verse 19, where Joseph wrestles with how best to respond because, we’re told, Joseph was a righteous man. In other words, his understanding of Torah ‘took in’ God’s mercy and God’s love. But just as he resolves to show Mary this mercy and love, to not expose her to public disgrace and danger (possibly death), an angel comes to him with even stranger news to take in, that “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
And yet the angel’s greeting is a familiar one – heard down the ages by those who are invited by God into God’s plans for the redeeming and the restoring of our world, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Words that are always followed by the promise, ‘I will be with you.’
And here that promise is fulfilled! This child is I will be with you in the flesh! And the writer of Matthew is reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz: urging him not to be afraid; telling him God would be with him; and offering this sign; that a young woman in his household would give birth and call the child Immanuel. But this child is Emmanuel. God come to be with us. God come to ‘take’ us ‘in’!
And so Joseph wakes up, and succeeds where we often fail, and does something about his dream. He ‘takes in’ Mary to his home – the word paralambano again. He ‘takes’ her as his legal wife. He offers her his love and his lineage – crucial to the prophecy, for the writer of Matthew makes it very clear that the Messiah will come from the house of David. He relinquishes his right to name this first-born and calls the baby Jesus, ‘Yahweh saves’.
We have a habit, however, at this time of year to forget this version of the Christmas story – one that is robust enough to welcome scandal and endure heartbreak – and tell a story that is reduced in size – a G rated version about a mother and father and child tucked up the cosy stable (probably also an oxymoron) surrounded by adoring animals and well-scrubbed shepherds and exotic strangers with no immigration issues. A story we celebrate with beautiful decorations and gifts and tables laden with food.
But a few years ago Kelli Hughes gave me Doing December Differently, an Iona resource full of the stories of people who do not fit this reduced in size, ‘taken in’ version of Christmas; those who face sad or difficult Christmases, who spend Christmas alone or childless or with a new family of gay and lesbian friends.
One contributor, Kevin Ellis, wrote about Joseph: Joseph is the person with whom I feel a particular affinity at Christmas…. he does not really have a role to play in the Christmas narrative. Jesus is not his child and yet he is expected to enter into the celebrations as if he was the birth father. If Christmas is all about children – and this is something I have heard on many occasions – I, like Joseph, find myself strangely outside it. I have yearned for children, but they have never arrived…
…what disenfranchises me… is what the story has become…no longer about light invading the darkness or hope overcoming fear – as witnessed in the lives of men and women like Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth… the shepherds and the magi. It is not about the coming of one who included all, even those we struggle to look directly in the eye. The Christmas story 21st century style, for churchgoer and non-church goer alike, has been reduced to the sweet lullaby of the Virgin Mother to a contented baby….
What I do…is attempt to hold together both the enjoyment of a festival centred on a child and the pain of childlessness – as impossible as that seems sometimes – and to try and ensure that my Christmas disenfranchises no one….and try to remember that for one day it is OK to feel an affinity with Joseph.
‘Its OK to feel an affinity with Joseph’. As I read Kevin Ellis’s reflection I wonder if it’s really that Joseph does not have a role to play or whether we have deliberately shut out his vital role. That we need to ‘take in’ the implications of Joseph’s part in the Christmas story. That in Joseph we ‘take in’ the reality of the dark nights, we ‘take in’ the periods of agonising and wrestling, we ‘take in’ the heartbreak of abandoning the plans we had for our lives, and we gradually discover for ourselves that God is present in our darkest nights, our darkest years; that God wrestles alongside us as we seek to live and act righteously; that God comes when our dreams are shattered into pieces and slowly pieces us together with a new dream.
A new dream that reveals to us just how vital Joseph’s role is. For in Joseph’s actions, in the Christmas narrative, in the prophecies, in the genealogies, we see that God is always taking people in – taking in foreigners, taking in women, taking in scandals, taking in outcasts, alongside kings and patriarchs and hardworking decent honest tradesmen like Joseph.
Joseph plays a vital role; for in taking in the unborn child, Jesus, Joseph demonstrates what is it to love and serve and worship the God who comes to take us in.