The feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh celebrates the great gift of new life and rebirth from God. Mary gives birth to the Son of God, and Joseph gives him the name Jesus, a name that communicates the Child’s divine vocation: to save God’s people from their sins (Matt 1:21). In taking our flesh, He is called Emmanuel (Matt 1:23). His holiness is with us. All things are filled with His glory and His righteousness. God becomes man to offer eternal salvation to all—to those already seeking the righteousness of God and to those lost in darkness.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is read in the Matins service as well as in the Divine Liturgy of the Feast. At the Matins service, the Gospel (1:18-25) tells of the miraculous birth of the child Jesus and his adoption by Mary’s husband, Joseph. In that passage, Joseph is described not only as Mary’s husband, but as a just man. St. Matthew also explains how Joseph resolves to divorce Mary to save her from shame.
…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matt 1:19)
But an angel of the Lord intervenes, appearing to Joseph in a dream, and guides him on a different path. The angel of the Lord refers to Joseph not merely as the “husband of Mary,” but as a “son of David”:
But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit… (Matt 1:20)
This change in Joseph invites our reflection as we near the celebration of this great feast day.
Joseph is a just man who is led to understand Mary’s pregnancy as shameful. Her pregnancy will bring hardship and disgrace, and he prepares to divorce Mary in order to spare her public accusation and trial. Joseph shows kindness and care toward Mary—the kindness and care of a righteous and just man. This righteousness of Joseph is grounded in compassion and mercy.
As long as Joseph understands his vocation as being narrowly limited by earthly obligations, matters of marriage, and public shame, his sense of righteousness leads him to believe that dissolution of the social, legal, and practical arrangement of the marriage—a quiet divorce—is the best possible solution. With this narrowly conceived vocation, one that is rooted in what the evangelist Matthew identifies as “husband,” Joseph’s choices and behavior make sense to us. Even in the most difficult of family and social circumstances, all of us can find the resolve to follow through with hard choices in a way that is respectful and compassionate to others, even to those with whom we are locked in strong disagreement and conflict. In the midst of turmoil of our lives, we are able to demonstrate love and charity toward others when we are guided by our sense of righteousness.
But when Joseph’s vocation is clarified by the angel in his dream, his calling is elevated beyond earthly limits and gives way to a heavenly nature. He is “Joseph, son of David.” He is a servant of the Lord. He is strengthened to turn away from his fear, to abandon his narrow righteousness, and to do the unexpected: Joseph takes Mary as his wife. He is no longer merely a man navigating the arrangements of a marriage and a divorce. We now know him as one belonging to the genealogy that opens St. Matthew’s Gospel, the genealogy that reveals God’s hand at work in human affairs. And it is important for us to understand that one belongs to this genealogy, the lineage of Abraham, not through legal and biological links or through personal righteousness, but because God is with us. And we respond to God’s presence with faith, humility, and obedience.
The angel of the Lord reveals to Joseph that Mary’s being with child is not a source of shame and that taking her as his wife is not something to be feared. What Joseph understood to be bad is, in fact, good. That which is conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit and is from God. That which was thought to be shameful, is holy.
How often we forget that we belong to God. So often we allow ourselves to be guided by fear and shame. Time and time again we allow fear to take hold of our heart in the face of tragedy and injustice. In times of trouble, we depend on our own righteous resources to lead us through. But God shows His presence and glory to us in the worrisome realities of our lives. He offers us a righteousness far beyond our own when we accept that we are “sons of David.” We are part of the divine genealogy. The truth behind the troubled realities of our lives is that we belong to God and God is with us.
An angel of the Lord, the messenger of God’s holy intervention, breaks into the human realm and reveals to Joseph the limits of his righteousness. This righteousness seeks to spare Mary shame, but on its own is not sufficient to discern what is true and good and holy. On its own, his righteousness, while allowing Joseph to yield to the will of God, is still rooted in shame and lacking in courage. His righteousness alone will neither fulfill the prophecies nor follow the will of God. The liturgical texts of the feast celebrate Joseph’s encounter with the angel and his persuasion by the angel to change his course of action:
Tell us, Joseph, how is it that thou bringest to Bethlehem, great with child, the Maiden whom thou hast received from the sanctuary? ‘I have searched the prophets,’ said he, ‘and have been warned by an angel; and I am persuaded that Mary shall give birth to God, in ways surpassing all interpretation. Magi from the east shall come to worship Him with precious gifts.’ O Lord, who for our sake hast taken flesh: glory to Thee.
-Christmas Eve, the Third Hour
As St. Matthew’s Gospel continues, the angel of the Lord appears again to Joseph, instructing him to take the child and his mother to Egypt (Matt 2:14) and later instructs him to return them to the land of Israel (Matt 2:20). In these latter instances, Joseph does not rely on his own righteousness but rather is simply open and responsive to his divine vocation as “Son of David.” He is one who belongs to God, and he abandons his own ways in order to follow the Lord.
Mary, of course, is receptive to God’s intervention (Luke 1:38) and obedient to His word. She embraces completely the divine vocation given to her. The magi, too, are able to overcome their own earthly vocations in order to come to know the Christ Child. They are open to the presence of God and travel from afar, following a star, and they learn from those who read the Scriptures where the king of the Jews is to be born. In turn, they have the opportunity to fall before the Child, to worship Him and offer their gifts.
But in St. Matthew and St. Luke’s narratives we also discover that not everyone is able to recognize the holy presence of God and to fully embrace their own divine vocation. Herod and all of Jerusalem are troubled and continue in this unsettled state to the end of the gospel narrative. While the chief priests and scribes of the people can accurately search the Scriptures, they cannot see what the Magi see. Herod, rather than relying upon and following what little righteousness he might possess, turns instead to insanity, violence, and murder.
Our life in Christ involves our whole self; every thought and breath is commended to Christ our God. The remembrance of God is brought into every aspect of our life—into our sinful failing and our own righteous striving. Our faith in Christ offers us a righteousness that overcomes fear and leads us into our divine vocation: to be servants of the Lord. A righteousness that comes from us alone, a righteousness that is not rooted in Christ and is not open to the divine intervention of God is a righteousness that will lead us, over and over, to wrong understanding and to wrong pursuits.
Celebrating the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh is a time for us, like Joseph, to offer our fear to the Lord. It is a time for us to recognize that our true vocation is a divine vocation, a time for us to embrace this divine calling fully and to become “sons of David.” Let this Feast of our Lord’s Nativity be a time for us joyfully to actualize in our lives the festive shout, “God is with us!”
The Rev. Dr. Nicholas Solak is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (MDiv ’02, DMin ‘08). He has been the parish priest at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Stroudsburg, PA, since July 2002. His wife, Masha, directs the choir and teaches part-time in the Pan-Orthodox Preschool in Stroudsburg. Fr. Nicholas is the dean of the Wilkes-Barre Deanery of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania and a Sessional Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology at St. Vladimir’s, where he oversees the seminary’s prison ministry field education.
All images courtesy The Temple Gallery.