A very happy Christmas to all my readers!

Today’s painting is ‘The Nativity’ by Federico Barocci (Baroccio), who was born in the first half of the 16th century and died in 1612. He painted ‘The Nativity’ in 1597. I found this thanks to The Four Mass’keteers and featured it in my 2009 Boxing Day post.

At this time of year, a Christian is likely to hear a politically-oriented sermon about the Christmas story.

In previous years, many denominations — including the Catholic Church — have delivered messages about poverty and immigration based on New Testament texts.  This year is no different. In Britain, a religious think tank, Theos, has put forward the same notion. Dr Stephen Holmes says:

The birth of Jesus was a political event, through and through.

Our celebration of Christmas should therefore be political also.

How fascinating. Today’s and tomorrow’s posts look at the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke’s perspectives with the help of Dr Craig S Keener’s hermeneutical work which I featured earlier this past autumn.

First, the text, Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV):

The Birth of Jesus Christ

 18Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall call his name Immanuel”

      (which means, God with us). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

This is what Dr Keener had to say about the text — which he looks at from a familial and marital  perspective (emphases in bold mine):

The text specifically says that Joseph was a “righteous” person (1:19). Before listing lessons, we need to provide some background. Given the average ages of marriage among first-century Jews, Joseph was probably less than twenty and Mary was probably younger, perhaps in her mid-teens. Joseph probably did not know Mary well; sources suggest that parents did not allow Galilean couples to spend much time together before their wedding night. Also, Jewish “betrothal” was as binding legally as a marriage, hence could be ended only by divorce or the death of one partner. If the woman were charged with unfaithfulness in a court, her father would have to return to the groom the brideprice he had paid; also the groom would keep any dowry the bride had brought or was bringing into the marriage. By divorcing her privately the groom would probably forfeit such financial remuneration.

The narrative implies first of all something about commitment: Joseph was righteous even though he planned to divorce Mary, because he thought she had been unfaithful, and unfaithfulness is a very serious offense. The text also teaches us about compassion: even though Joseph believed (wrongly) that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he planned to divorce her privately to minimize her shame, thereby forgoing any monetary repayment for her misdeed and any revenge. Here Joseph’s “righteousness” (1:19) includes compassion on others. The passage further emphasizes consecration: Joseph was willing to bear shame to obey God. Mary’s pregnancy would bring her shame, perhaps for the rest of her life. If Joseph married her, people would assume either that he got her pregnant or, less likely, that he was a moral weakling who refused to punish her properly; in either case, Joseph was embracing Mary’s long-term shame in obedience to God’s will. Finally, we learn about control. In their culture, everyone assumed that a man and woman alone together could not control themselves sexually. But in their obedience to God, Joseph and Mary remained celibate even once they were married until Jesus was born, to fulfill the Scripture which promised not only a virgin conception but a virgin birth (1:23, 25). There are other morals in this paragraph, too (for instance, about the importance of Scripture in 1:22-23), but these are the clearest from Joseph’s own life.

As much as I wish they wouldn’t, people are welcome to draw political conclusions from Jesus’s birth.

However, they would be better placed paying heed to Dr Keener’s interpretation concerning marriage, family and the themes of commitment, compassion, consecration and control — infinitely more meaningful and personal.

On a higher, scriptural level, note his mention of the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy of a virgin consecration and a virgin birth.

To many believers, the Christmas story demonstrates holy obedience to God in trying circumstances.

Tomorrow: The Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel

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