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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is interesting to me that we can read the story of Jesus’ conception and birth in two different, almost opposite directions. I see two opposite impulses when talking about the birth of Jesus. You’ve probably heard both. I’m sure I’ve talked about it in both ways. One impulse is to make the story as profound, mysterious, amazing, and astounding as possible. To highlight the strangeness and the miraculous. The other impulse is to make the story as normal as possible. To show how simple and ordinary are the things that happen. And I suspect the answer to why we can speak about the same event in two almost opposite ways is found in the baby Himself. Because His birth is pretty normal, except for Mary’s virginity. But He was in her womb for the normal amount of time. He was born in the same way as all other babies. He needed what all babies need: warmth, food, cleaning. He needed His diapers changed and I have a strong suspicion that crying He definitely did make. To all appearances, totally normal, completely ordinary.
On the other hand, this child born of Mary is the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. With the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever one God. He was conceived in Mary without the help of a man, with the Holy Spirit’s power alone as the cause of His conception. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and would never happen again. Jesus was absolutely unique. The catechism sums it up, as usual, neatly and concisely: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. There, in one sentence, is the extraordinary, mysterious, and incomprehensible, as well as the ordinary, mundane, understandable way of any baby coming into this world.
And we see this combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary in what happens to Joseph, as well. It always strikes me that Joseph never speaks. Not here, not in Luke’s Gospel, nowhere in the Scriptures is Joseph recorded as saying a single word. He simply does what is given to him to do. Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, perhaps after she returned from Elizabeth’s house. And, as far as Joseph is concerned, this is a horrible, but completely ordinary occurrence. Girls get pregnant all the time, all around the world. There is nothing strange about Mary being pregnant. And, frankly, though devastating to Joseph and probably dangerous to her at that time, there would be nothing particularly extraordinary about Mary committing adultery. That, too, happens around the world all the time. So Joseph is confronted with a bad situation, and he has to use his ordinary, but righteous, common sense to figure out what he’s going to do. He considers it, and decides that the just thing is to divorce her from her promised marriage to him. Yes, they are betrothed, but all the language here makes them as good as married: “her husband” (1:19); “divorce” (v.19); “Mary your wife,” (v. 20); “his wife” (v. 24). So what will Joseph do? Adultery is a great betrayal, and Joseph, a righteous man, can’t be involved in Mary’s supposed sin. But Joseph is also merciful. He’s not going to subject her to public shame and probable death. He decides that he will divorce her quietly, out of the public eye. All of this is completely ordinary to outward appearance.
Joseph may have been tossing and turning, and finally he falls into a fitful sleep. And he has a dream, where the extraordinary breaks in on his unfortunate, but ordinary, life. And he apparently knows that this isn’t just any dream; it’s not his sleeping mind trying to untangle the threads of the day. It is God’s own messenger speaking to him: don’t be afraid to take Mary your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Zechariah argues with the angel and is struck mute; Mary asks how it can be, and the angel answers; but Joseph is silent and simply does what the angel says.
And now everything is upside down. Before, he thought he had an ordinary situation to deal with ordinarily, according to the Law and his own mercy. But now he has exactly the opposite: an unfathomably extraordinary situation, unlike anything that had ever happened, and beyond anything that Joseph could have imagined. But even with the knowledge of this extraordinary event, Joseph has to live a completely ordinary life. Outwardly, nothing will change. He will marry her, they will care for this child, and life will go on. Inwardly, the dream may have solved his anxiety, but outwardly, his knowledge does nothing. What is he going to say? Is he going to tell people who see Mary’s growing belly that the child is God’s? Unless an angel speaks to them, I doubt they’d believe it any more than Joseph would have, had he not had that particular dream.
I have to wonder, because of my own tendencies, whether Joseph’s ordinary, everyday life after their return from Egypt rubbed the shine from the novelty of these days. Not that Joseph ever forgot what he had heard and seen, but everyday life has a way of taking even the most profound experiences and turning them into dim, fading memories. I say this not because I have any idea what Joseph was thinking, then or otherwise. He is completely silent. I say this because I have some idea of what happens to me. Because in our midst, no less than for Joseph, the extraordinary has taken up residence. We do not have the vocation to serve as the protector and father of the child Jesus. But Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us. He has not left us alone. And yet the wonder and the novelty and the strangeness can be dulled and worn out.
Think of the astounding things that we have seen. Think how easily we make the extraordinary into the ordinary, and long to make the ordinary more spectacular. Think how familiar we are with things that ought to make us stop in our tracks and open our mouths in wonder. Chesterton said something to the effect that we think rare things are special because they’re rare, and common things are not special because they’re common. But if a blade of grass or a dandelion were rare, we would marvel at their beauty. We have little devices that fit in our pockets or our purses, that contain more computing power than what put a man on the moon—and that technology filled a very large room. We can sit in a large machine, and fly through the air from one end of the earth to another. We can eat and drink the body and blood of our crucified and resurrected God.
But how easily these extraordinary things—both the earthly and heavenly—become simply the backdrop to an ordinary and mundane life. We want the rare and unique, not the common. We want a more impressive, faster, smaller, better device. We want a more luxurious, more comfortable flight through space. We want something more spiritual, more special, more intimate than eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus. Crazy, isn’t it? As crazy as Joseph living a thoroughly ordinary life after everything that had happened.
Outwardly, nothing had changed for Joseph. Whatever parental responsibility Joseph exercised—and we are given every reason to believe that it was what any just and upright man would have done—His Son was still really the Son of God, as Jesus made clear in that temple when He was 12. In the middle of that regular, ordinary, normal life, the extraordinary, the profound, the wondrous had entered the world, and nothing was really ever the same again. Likewise, and in some ways even more, the extraordinary has interrupted and redirected the regular course of our lives. Jesus is still present with us, even more intimately than with Mary. Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is still our Lord. Still the one who has redeemed us from death and the devil. Still the one in whom we find our eternal life.
And this is the extraordinary thing: He still gives us His extraordinary life under ordinary things like flesh and blood, bread and wine, water and words. And right here, in the midst of ordinary, happy, sad, gut-wrenching, wonderful lives, the extraordinary breaks in on us again and again, even when we take Him for granted. So we continue to pray. Come, O come, Immanuel. Ransom us, Your captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here. Free us from Satan’s tyranny and give us victory over the grave. Make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, and be Thyself our King of peace. We continue to pray and He continues to act, under the surface of the ordinary, in the extraordinary ways of His salvation, God with us and for us. He opens heaven and no one can close it. He is the cornerstone in whom all things hold together, Wisdom itself, from the mouth of God Most High. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/18/19