‘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. Because her husband Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”’
The account of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew always jarred with me as a child. A fidgety, 6 year old miniature feminist scowling in the church pew, I raised a number of silent objections. Why did the angel appear to Joseph? He wasn’t the one who had to become pregnant. He wasn’t the one who had to deal with being mother of God. All he had to do was procure a donkey and stand reverently next to the manger. Matthew’s account of the story seemed to rob Mary of all the agency, power and humility expressed through her speech in the gospel of Luke ‘May it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).
Now I am an adult (but still fidgety and a feminist), the appearance of the angel to Joseph makes a lot more sense. In the time before the angel’s arrival, Joseph had to deal with the hurt that his loved one had apparently betrayed him. He suppressed any anger and desire he might have felt for revenge – a desire fully sanctioned by a law which advocated stoning for pregnancies out of wedlock – and made plans to quietly divorce Mary to minimise her disgrace. Even after the angel appeared to him, Joseph would have had to field decades of snide remarks, awkward questions and arguments family members, friends and strangers who felt he had done the wrong thing, made a poor match and a bad relationship. Again, he would have had to suppress the anger and hurt these questions raised. This suggests a huge amount of courage on behalf of Joseph, which is often overlooked in our celebration of Christ’s birth.
None of this makes for a very stable family narrative. The image of the harmonious nativity, endlessly reproduced at this time of year, threatens to hide the fact that the holy family is dysfunctional at best.
This is a family featuring:
- Parents who are halfway home before they realise they have left their precocious twelve year old in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 41-52)
- A child who publicly denies his mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46-50 and Mark 3:31-35). It made a great theological point about the importance of church family – but imagine the pain it would have caused for the family waiting outside.
- A child who finds his family and his father’s occupation become a hindrance when he wryly notes that ‘Only in their own towns, among their relatives and in their own homes are prophets without honour’ (Mark 6: 1-6 and Matthew 13:53-58).
And this is without apocryphal infancy narratives in which the young Jesus (a toddler with divine powers) turns his playmates into goats because their parents won’t let them out to play with him (see the infancy gospels of Thomas and Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Infancy Gospel, which imagine a child Jesus who is a far cry from Away in a Manger’s ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’).
The messiness of all families – even of the holy family – used to be something Christian theology acknowledged more freely. The medieval mystery plays, performed by craftsmen in some of the country’s biggest towns between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, dramatized the entire salvation narrative from creation to doomsday. They also explored the human conflicts inherent in these spiritual narratives. As a consequence, the medieval Joseph and Mary’s relationship is far from harmonious. The York mystery cycle devotes an entire play to Joseph’s trouble about Mary, and portrays Joseph’s anguish at his wife’s pregnancy:
JOSEPH: Whose is it, Marie?
MARIA: Sir, God’s and yours.
JOSPEPH: No no. Now I know well I am beguiled.
(Translated from ‘Joseph’s Trouble about Mary’, The York Mystery Plays, c.1350s-1569)
This bitter conflict is never entirely resolved, even after the angel’s visit, which restores Joseph’s faith in Mary. For the rest of the cycle, Joseph continues to squabble with his wife, being portrayed as anxious, erring, and fretful – in short, as a human being confronted with both the incomprehensible grace of the divine and the strain of assuming the patriarchal role demanded of him by society. Medieval images of the holy family frequently reflect this discord, with Joseph absent, marginalised, or busy in the background of the frame. Not quite the ‘happy families’ we see in today’s Christmas cards.
Today, however, we are afraid to acknowledge the discord and complexities of real family life, instead favouring an image of the nativity as the ultimate ‘happy family’. The Ideal Family, consisting of two Happy Parents and their Happy Children – is not only reproduced in nativity scenes, but also in the many Christmas adverts which surround us at Christmas time. This image can be extremely alienating.
For my generation, it is also unrealistic.
I have friends who spend up to four hours of Christmas day in their cars as they drive between the houses of separated parents, stepparents and siblings. Though they participate fully in the spirit of love, their Christmas day is often one of anxiety, not of peace, as they navigate transport issues and poor weather because they don’t want to hurt anyone by choosing to spend their day with just one parent.
I have friends who have to spend Christmas apart from their cherished partners or even pretending they don’t exist because, even if accepting of their sexuality, their families don’t think it’s ‘the right time’ to have *that* conversation with the wider family just yet.
I have friends who spend Christmas fielding awkward questions about why they are single.
I have friends who spend Christmas day peacekeeping between various family members.
I have friends who don’t go home for Christmas at all.
These friends are not represented in the Morrisons adverts, on the glossy covering of Sainsbury’s magazine, on the front of the festive board game boxes.
hey are not represented in the nativity.
But they should be.
Perhaps we need a different way of looking at the nativity this year.
As well as embracing the acceptance, harmony and joy that the little figure in the manger gives to all of us, contemplate also those standing around the manger.
That wooden figure of Joseph? He is exhausted from the long journey, fraught with caring for his pregnant wife and weary from the judgement of innkeepers (did they really not have room? Or did they somehow know there was something taboo about me and Mary? Could they tell we weren’t married before…is it that obvious just from looking at us...?). He worries that this is the first incident in a lifetime of judgement he will have to shield his wife and son from. He’s overcome with joy at the dozy, tiny new life, but also worried that he will somehow let him down – a natural enough worry for any parent, but to a parent of the son of God –
The wooden figure of Mary? She twiddles with the rough swaddling clothes, making him as warm as she possibly can. She glances at her husband, seeing the mixture of wonder and terror on his face, and for the tiniest of moments she wonders how they will last the course. She knows saying ‘yes’ was the right thing to do, but she regrets the social stigma this solid, honest carpenter will suffer on her behalf. She thinks she knows why they are staying in a stable, and not in an inn, or with one of Joseph’s relatives.
And nestled between these anxieties, a tiny baby.