Sunday, December 22, 2013

GOSPEL READING Matthew 1: 18-25

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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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.’ 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.’ When Joseph awoke 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.

What if all you knew about Jesus’s birth story was contained in the seven verses we’ve just read? If you could forget details and impressions you absorbed from the Gospel of Luke’s account and from Christmas carols and from Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, what would you understand about Jesus’s birth?

Try to recall the essentials of Matthew’s nativity story:

  • Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit—not by Joseph, to whom she’s engaged.
  • Joseph, the protagonist in this story, decides to call off the engagement, but as discretely as possible.
  • Joseph then dreams an angel tells him to marry Mary and name the child Jesus.
  • The angel provides a proof text from Isaiah about the birth of a child who was to be named Emmanuel.
  • The child is born and Joseph names him Jesus.

What’s missing from this Christmas story? No angel announcing Mary will have a baby and be called blessed. No rejoicing Mary who visits the also-pregnant Elizabeth. No window into Mary’s perspective. No decree from Caesar Augustus. No journey to Bethlehem. No manger and swaddling clothes. No shepherd and sheep. No joyful choir of angels. Certainly there was not yet any theologizing about the meaning of Mary’s virginity, no dogma about her immaculate conception (which was not formalized until 1854), no doctrine on incarnation. Except for Joseph’s genealogy listed just before this first story in Matthew, we know nothing else about Joseph or Mary.

But I’ll tell you what’s also missing: any mention of love. On this Sunday when we light the Advent candle of love, I come to this story and ask: If you erase from memory that Hallmark greeting card image of Joseph gazing protectively upon Mary and the babe and of Mary adoring her infant—where’s the love in this stark story?

Don’t let other stories and your own cultural assumptions color your reading. Go back to read Matthew 1: 18-25. Where is the love? Do you hear any declaration of love? See any show of affection? Note any hint of glad anticipation of a beloved child’s birth?

I’ll tell you what I do see. I see a good man and a woman with few options. Since the Torah commands a woman unfaithful to her betrothed (as Mary seems) to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21), I see two very vulnerable people risking society’s disapproval (at the very least) to discern the right response to the loving Spirit’s prompting. And the choice they make is not what was prescribed by scripture. They are not necessarily “in love,” our notion of romantic love being foreign to their culture. But the power of human vulnerability gives me reason to imagine their mutual vulnerability made it possible for them to develop a caring, compassionate relationship.

Let me connect the dots from vulnerability to love—but in a modern context.

To do so I’m going to borrow heavily from the research of professor Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Her research has led her to this fundamental realization: our willingness to become vulnerable allows us to live more authentically, wholeheartedly, and lovingly. Vulnerability may look like weakness but in fact requires courage. Our willingness to be vulnerable defies society’s shaming mechanisms. Our willingness to be uncomfortably vulnerable means we can see ourselves as worthy even though we make mistakes. Vulnerability is at the heart of self-knowledge and meaningful human experiences. Brown says that, ironically, our imperfection is the human commonality that can connect us. But the imperfection we need to see in someone else is the last thing we’re willing to reveal about ourselves.

What does vulnerability look like in your life? When have you made yourself vulnerable lately? When have you let down your guard and put yourself in a position where your weakness or failings could be exposed?

Let me be careful to say what I don’t mean. Living vulnerably does not mean living apologetically or slavishly. Nor does it mean you intentionally subject yourself to experiences that are harmful. It means being so confident of your worthiness and belovedness that you can make mistakes and not beat yourself up about them. It means you take risks but know that you have a self that is bigger than any particular relationship or achievement.

It’s easy to recognize how vulnerable Mary is, but I love the way our songbook directs us to sing the Magnificat attributed to Mary “confidently.” An unmarried pregnant girl would have ordinarily been evicted by her father and rejected by the man to whom she’d been betrothed—or worse, stoned in front of her father’s house, according to Deuteronomic law (Deut. 22: 13-21). Mary was also living in a time when any pregnancy put the mother’s life at risk. That expectant mother is the poster child of first century vulnerability. Yet we are to imagine her singing confidently. Vulnerability is a positive quality—not a negative absence.

Joseph is also vulnerable to great shame in a shame-based culture. Before they began living together, the girl became pregnant. Her (presumed) sin accrues to him—unless he denounces her. And when, at the Spirit’s prompting, Joseph decides to defy tradition and marry the girl who’s pregnant by another, what suspicions will forever haunt their relationship? But he takes the kind of risk that only a self-possessed man can take.

Certainly the baby is vulnerable. Even though we know he survived the risky birth, even though he may have escaped with few emotional scars from the scandal of his birth, we know that baby became the very picture of vulnerability on his dying day, hanging naked in a shameful public execution.

And what about you? You have known vulnerability when you walked into dangerous territory or risked hurt or embarrassment, when you let your guard down and took a chance, when you faced straight into disapproval or failure, when you explored tough questions or tried something new.

It’s hard to be vulnerable. It’s safer to strengthen our walls and double our defenses, especially at this season of the year. If you’re dreading dear old Aunt Ida’s perennial question about why you’re not married–or if the grief of a lost loved one makes you feel newly raw and ragged at Christmas–or if a friend has disappointed you, then you might be tempted to do what Joseph initially planned. You might follow the script. You might do or say what’s expected, what will impress, what will keep others happy. You might work very hard not to seem the fool. You might protect your feelings. And you might keep up those defenses with alcohol. Or comfort food. Or a shopping spree. Or an infidelity. Or tiny deceptions that one by one become eventually a phony life story.

On the other hand, you might choose vulnerability. Which means to be fully human. And know both the risks and rewards of love. You might ponder why you’ve erected your wall in the first place and have the courage to start tearing it down.

Certainly there are times when you need to guard your heart and rest your weary mind. And be concerned about what others think.

But willingness to be embarrassed is freeing. Ability to receive criticism and not convert that to shame is liberating. Experiencing failure without labeling yourself as a failure both requires and leads to spiritual maturity. Being open to something scary makes possible new thoughts and new relationships.

It is especially the effect of vulnerability on relationships that interests me in today’s story. I’ve tried to remove the lenses of Romanticism in reading Matthew’s nativity story in order to read it for what it plainly says. I don’t assume that the betrothal between Mary and Joseph was anything but a pragmatic arrangement, and Joseph’s eventually merciful solution to their dilemma was anything but the determination of a merciful man inspired by the Spirit of God. I don’t think we can know if Joseph loved Mary and the baby then or later with anything like the affection we associate with familial love. We can’t wrench Mary and Joseph from a highly patriarchal culture in which women related more closely to their sons than their husbands. And we certainly can’t give this story a happily ever after ending when in the very next chapter King Herod is going to order the child’s death and the new family will flee to Egypt. And the baby, as we know from the larger story, will die a short lifetime later on a torturous cross.

Yet the makings of love and hope are here in all this vulnerability. Perhaps its fruition is found in the baby who would later say, in this same Gospel, that the greatest of all commandments is to love.

At the risk of implying first century characters inhabited the same psychological world as we, I’ve used Mary and Joseph’s unknowable relationship to talk about our relationships. Brene Brown’s argues that when women and men are willing to be brokenheartedly vulnerable, they can experience meaningful relationships and live wholeheartedly. Did you catch that irony? Willingness to be brokenhearted teaches us to love wholeheartedly.

Songwriter Leonard Cohen sings: “And love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

Go to the Gospel of Luke for the angels trilling “Glory to God in the highest!”

Go to the Gospel of Matthew for a throbbing song that is a broken halleluiah, the exposed heartbeat of love.

To love another is to let down the drawbridge leading to your protected heart and invite that person in knowing how badly you can now be hurt by this one.

To tie your fate to one in betrothal . . . is dangerous.

To birth a child . . . means you have lost all control and now this little one holds your whole world in her tiny hands.

To create deep friendship . . . requires great risk as you surrender pretenses with no “money back” guarantee.

“And love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah.”

Think back over the past week and call to mind something you did or experienced that allowed you to feel vulnerable. How did you handle it?

Perhaps you called an old friend you’d sort of neglected and you didn’t make up an elaborate excuse for the neglect.

You loved a child enough to let make her own mistake and then loved her through the consequences.

You confessed that you failed at something without telling yourself you were a failure.

You said “I love you” first.

You listened to someone else’s story of screwing up in a way that communicated that your love was not contingent on their perfection.

You spoke out against an injustice without vilifying the opposition and held open the possibility of common ground.

You experienced emotional pain without numbing that pain with your go-to anesthesia.

You listened to an angel voice and did an unpopular but compassionate act.

And in your vulnerability you started down the path toward love.

Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

See also this interview with Krista Tippett for “On Being.” http://www.onbeing.org/program/brene-brown-on-vulnerability/4928

See also her Ted Talk here.

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