During Advent, we are featuring devotionals written by clergy of the Greater NJ Annual Conference of the UMC. For this second week, we are focused on reflections related to Joseph, based on the Gospel of Matthew.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
When I ﬁrst began seminary, I remember learning that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) verses that predicted the virgin birth, and that show up, quoted, in the New Testament stories of Jesus’ birth, had a somewhat sketchy translation history. The original Hebrew manuscripts used a word that meant “young woman” or “girl”, and that could be used to denote “virgin” in the sense we understand it, but did not do so necessarily. You can see the verse faithfully translated from Hebrew to English in the New Revised Standard Version (Isaiah 7:14).
But the writers of the New Testament would have been reading an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, not the Hebrew manuscripts. And the people who translated the Septuagint chose to use a Greek word that means, clearly, “virgin”, in the sense we understand it without the ambiguity of the original Hebrew word. This mattered, I was taught, because the gospel writers were not simply recording history as eyewitnesses. Rather, they were combining oral tradition and older written sources in a creative and artistic way to convey the message of Jesus’ gospel to their communities. So, they would do things like, for example, draw on Old Testament prophecies to add legitimacy to their writings and help their audience understand how this new Jesus movement made sense within their Jewish belief system and tradition.
All of this together (the choice to use the word “virgin” in the Septuagint, the way the gospels were written) absolutely shook my faith in those early days of seminary. The virgin birth had functioned, in my mind, as a sort of linchpin to my understanding of Jesus as God, of the incarnation. The supernatural miracle of a child conceived without human sexual
intercourse was proof that Jesus was special, different. But if, as seemed to be the case, the gospel writers were but human beings trying to spin a convincing tale, then it turns out my faith had been a house built of cards.
However, I wasn’t ready to give up on faith, or on God, that easily. Or maybe, it is more accurate to say that God wouldn’t give up on me that easily. Over the last eleven years or so, with lots of prayer, study, and community, I have found a way to release my need for the security blanket of supernatural miracles, and literal readings of scripture in general, to undergird my faith. I have found a way to hold the human and divine of scripture together lightly, in a tension that can aﬃrm truth without requiring historical fact. I am not saying that the virgin birth did not happen or that it did. That is not for me to know. And now, I can say, that for me it does not matter. Because the miracle is not that a virgin conceived a child. The miracle is that God chose to enter human life and God chose to do that with fallible and regular human beings like Mary and Joseph, like you and me. (It is much easier to keep God far away when we think God only deals with heroes and saints.)
So, this Advent, I like to imagine myself in Joseph’s shoes, trying to decide how to deal with the scandal of a pregnant ﬁancée, with whom Joseph had not slept – the complexity of emotions and thoughts he must have been experiencing in response to this news, along with the responsibility for making a choice that is at once socially and personally acceptable, that minimizes damage and maximizes future prospects for all involved.
And then I imagine receiving the message that Joseph did in his dreams. If my ﬁancée is a virgin, who has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit, there remains little choice but to accept the dream’s message and do what I’m told. Who can argue with a miracle? If my ﬁancée is a young woman, pregnant but not by me (conception story unknown), and the dream is telling me that even so, the child to be born is a gift from the Holy Spirit, the choice is much harder. Do I hold to my human anger, fear, and resentments, dismissing the dream as nothing but a dream? Or, do I believe that God has chosen not only to redeem this messy, painful situation but to change the world by it?
By the Rev. Emily Wilton
For Pondering & Prayer
What do you consider some of the linchpins of your faith? Have you ever had to question one of them?
Prayer: God, this Advent, help us to see that incarnation means that the divine is not sealed off from the human. Help us to tolerate ambiguity and tension, so that we do not close you out of the human moments you so desire to enter, transform, and redeem. Help us to make the diﬃcult choice of faith and love where without you, we would surely choose a self-seeking security. These things we pray in the name of the holy child, born of a young woman, Jesus, our Lord. Amen.