Katie Snipes Lancaster
Matthew 1:18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Reflection on the Nativity
The premise of this month’s devotional is that the nativity can guide our prayer life, our daily intimate connection with God. If that’s true, what does John 1:1 tell us?
A friend of mine was raised by a single mother. When her mother later got married to Mike, it didn’t take long for my friend to decide that she wanted Mike to adopt her. She took Mike’s last name and called him dad. He is the one who walked her down the aisle at her wedding. He is the one she calls when she needs fatherly advice. Mike’s parents became her beloved grandparents. His family became her family.
The nativity of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew begins in a similar manner. In the story-before-the-story, the first 17 verses of Matthew unpack a complex, revealing genealogy (that might look frightfully boring to the untrained eye). It is an intoxicating genealogy that goes back “fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17), spanning more than one thousand years (ancestry.com can’t even take me back that far). But what’s striking is that, like my friend for whom Mike became dad, this is Jesus’ genealogy traced along Joseph’s family tree, who we will find out is decidedly not his biological father. Genealogies in the biblical world are not matrilinear, so it makes some kind of sense to start with Joseph, but then you notice that Jesus’ lineage includes 5 women, who scholar Marshall Johnson points out are women who each had their own “irregularities” in their relationships with men (not unlike Mary, maybe?) and though they were scandalous outsiders in their own way, they are embraced by Matthew as part of Jesus’ family story. From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, everything is upside down.
In the Gospel of Matthew, God’s vision is for a world in which the marginalized are the main characters, where women and children, sinners and outcasts, even tax collectors and Gentiles are found to be at the center of God’s story. It is a political story seeking to disrupt the power dynamics of first century Rome (and every power-hungry empire thereafter, ours included), but we will find that the politics is for the sake of a more divine story. As Warren Carter suggests, our world “elevates male above female, king above people, ruler above ruled, rich above poor, religious leaders above people, violence above compassion, the center above the margins,” but under God’s vision proclaimed in the Gospel of Matthew, the first will be last, the last will be first, the power-hungry will be decentered and dethroned, and those who dominate and oppress will be subverted.
The nativity then begins in the thick of it all. Jesus’ Joseph-tethered genealogy is set before us. Now we come to the poignant tipping point; will Joseph stick it out with Mary who is (scandalously) pregnant? I suppose we know the answer before we know the question; Joseph is already the foundation for Jesus’ genealogy so the answer’s “yes.” But we do need to sit with that question. Something here within the potential scandal is pushing us to see that this story is God’s story. Jesus’ life begins, not by some human (sexual) mishap, or unintended pregnancy, but by the mystery of divine intention, a purposeful entryway into the child-sized beginnings of a new king to rival all kings, a king of kings in fact.
How then do we pray? This is complex. How do we approach the One in whom this narrative of salvation swirls? For one it gives me a chance to trust in a new way; when things seem out of sorts, upside down or backwards, we can trust that somewhere within our own story, God is there decentering our expectations and subverting our sense of how things “should” unfold. When we get caught up in wanting things to go according to our plan, this beginning of Matthew’s nativity reminds us that sometimes the scandal we never wanted can lead us down a surprisingly sacred path. It’s certainly not a welcome message, but it pushes me to think that our own visions of perfection might themselves be dominating us in ways that, oppress not just us, but others as well.
Praying the Nativity
O Christ who was and is and always will be:
be with us today in just the right way,
so that we might recognize you anew.