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 fulfil 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.
Walking around Leeds City Centre over the last few weeks in this final, and often frantic, run up to the main event I’ve been very conscious of seasonal music.
I don’t understand how people who work in retail cope with the endless loop of Slade shouting “Merry Christmas Everybody” at full volume, or various saccharine-sweet arrangements of Christmas carols. Last week I came upon a Mormon choir singing carols outside Harvey Nichols and I was approached by a personable young man who gave me a candy-twist, the sort you put on your Christmas tree. “Merry Christmas from the Mormons” he greeted me and I thought how petty it would be to point out that it’s still only Advent.
So I did.
Now, I don’t know if the Mormons do Advent but he gave me a very odd look.
I listen to Heart FM and there’s been an overwhelming emphasis on “Christmas Music” – and I put that in inverted commas. I’ve already mentioned Slade, then we have Wizard and their “I wish it could be Christmas Everyday”.
Well I don’t.
Then there’s the Pogues, “Fairy-tale in New York.”
Lovely song but who told that man he could sing?
And who could forget Sir Cliff’s “Mistletoe and Wine”?
Well, I’ve been trying.
How about Wham’s “Last Christmas I gave you my heart”?
I don’t know about you but that conjures up all sorts of medical images I could do without.
I’m sure Harry Belafonte’s on the verge of a UK come-back tour but if I hear “Mary’s Boy Child” one more time I may run screaming from Sainsburys.
We even had “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”
Well, all I want for Christmas is sleep.
The Leeds Philharmonic Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah last Saturday in the Town Hall and then the Lord Mayor’s Carol Concert on Thursday and a shortened version of that in the prison this afternoon. All the old favourites, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark The Herald Angels, The First Nowell and While Shepherds watched – do you know you can sing that to “On Ilkley Moor Bar Tat?”
I’ve concluded that I’m either a traditionalist or a musical snob.
When I taught at Whitcliffe I was constantly asked, “Can we watch a video. It’s Christmas.”
“Well, two points there Aaron…”
“It’s pronounced Arran”
“Firstly it’s November and secondly it’s Advent.”
“No Sir, its Christmas. My Mum’s bought sprouts.”
How can you argue with such logic?
It’s all about expectations isn’t it? The perfect family meal, beautifully cooked, served on time - and no rows. The opening of the presents: a candle that smells of mulled wine. Mmmmmm! Socks – again.
We live in a crescent of town houses and we all have a balcony. For ten and a half months of the year I think it looks quite a classy street. Now it’s like a cross between the Blackpool Illuminations and Las Vagas – but without the tastefulness. We’re into balcony lighting. Competative balcony lighting. Oh the levels of social disapprobation if yours don’t come up to scratch – and ours never do. “Well we’re doing Amish decorations this year.” Blank looks from the neghbours.
And don’t start me on Christmas round-robin letters: “Philippa passed her grade five oboe exam this year.” Look, this is me not caring.
How easy it is to become jaded.
There was a survey on the radio this week that said that an amazing 80% of those surveyed would rather there was no Christmas.
I know where they’re coming from.
Do I hear a Bah Humbug?
Is it just me?
I thought not.
It’s all about expectations isn’t it and expectations can be exhausting.
I think that's why the season of Advent, these weeks before Christmas, seems so full of counter-cultural potential. They imagine such a different way of preparing for the birth of Jesus - one that can't be rushed, one that can't be shoe-horned in between trips to The White Rose Centre.
The time comes when it comes, and it unfolds as it unfolds - and it's an invitation for each of us to stop rushing and for something within each of us to unfold slowly, too.
It is so foreign to our way of living - so foreign to so many of our expectations. So many of us demand a lot of Christmas and demand a lot of ourselves at Christmas, which is possibly why, for many of us, there is a sense of anti-climax when it’s all over.
And yet, as today's Scripture reminds us, the story of Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus, is precisely about the arrival of something foreign to our expectations and foreign to our familiar way of life. It's a story about learning a whole new set of rules and about learning to see the world with new eyes.
Today’s Gospel story is about Joseph. We too often forget about Joseph. More often than not we tend to focus on the story of Mary. But this year the lectionary gives us Joseph’s story.
The traditional Old Testament reading that goes with today’s Gospel passage is taken from Isaiah chapter 7 and is one of the Christmas readings because it is seen as a prophecy of things to come relating to the long expected and hoped for Messiah, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. In both the cultures of the Old and New Testaments chastity before marriage was highly valued and by the time of the Gospels the emphasis has shifted to virginity because that was surely implied in the writing of Isaiah. It was the expectation.
And we can see from the passage that the punishment for a lack of chastity was a formal, public renunciation of the woman - a ritual that would have shamed her and her family for life.
Now, we don't know much about Joseph. Many suspect that he had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry. Jesus is referred to as "the carpenter's son" on at least one occasion, so it seems as if Joseph's involvement did extend past his time in the Gospel stories. At least somebody remembered him along the way. Somebody looked at Jesus and saw something of Joseph.
It's hard to say. Today's Scripture suggests just one thing about Joseph's personality which we can hear in the story and it’s a vitally important personality trait: when Mary is found to pregnant, the Gospel says, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. He was just. To put it another way, he was a righteous man but righteousness in his religious culture would have expected him renounce his fiancée in public.
And so, what we need to see is that Joseph was a man who was committed to his faith and committed to following the Torah and its laws. And where those laws were explicit? Well, for a man like Joseph, the path of duty, the path of righteousness would have been explicit, too. But he chose another path because even before his dramatic dream, Joseph had resolved to bend those expectations and to act differently in the face of everything that his time and place and station in life had trained him to do. He resolved to stand aside quietly and to leave Mary and her family with their dignity intact. So he didn't do what would have been expected. He followed the pull of something else.
In being righteous and yet, even so, unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph heard the call of something deeply challenging for a man like him and what is so remarkable about him is that he had the wisdom and the courage to follow that call.
Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It must have been astounding, confronting and deeply challenging at both a religious and personal level. God would enter the world. God would be born to his wife, as hard as that was to understand. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do, but Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.
We know Mary was his betrothed, and surely Joseph must have loved her but, still, this took a lot of trust and this is why Joseph's dream is so important. Joseph’s dream was effectively a dream of the salvation of the world and for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else and it is often the case that true salvation comes through someone else.
That’s the lesson for us, too. Like Joseph, sometimes, we are to trust God and then step back and let God take the lead. Scripture, then, carries an implicit message that God does appear over and over again, to various sorts of people. Matthew and Luke both have it right, but they are different stories. God continues to come into the world, but we have to trust other sources and God works through those relationships. God works through both Mary and Joseph. God needs both Luke's story of the annunciation and Matthew's story of Joseph's dream. God works through a young woman, and her fiancé believes in her, allowing God to work through him too.
The story does not go on to tell about the role that Joseph played in the life of young Jesus. We don't know if Joseph even lived long enough to teach Jesus much about carpentry, much less anything else.
But we do know that the love that Jesus talked about, the love he stood for, the love he died for, was just that kind of rule-changing, deep-seeing kind of love: just that kind of non-abandoning, instinctive, sheltering, protecting, guiding love, just that kind of patient, quiet, healing love. It was a love that was strong enough to grasp for something different undeterred by conventions and expectations and limitations - and that's the love of Jesus, and the love of his father, Joseph, and the love of God.
So, Advent invites us to let go of all the expectations I’ve already mentioned. Advent calls us to remember the love of Jesus and Joseph and the love of God. It calls us to let God's peace gradually warm our souls, freeing us for new expectations and the birth of something within us and for us: the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us. Advent calls us to wait for the arrival of hope and to see the shadowy outline of a new world that is just beginning to dawn.
For Joseph, to hear the call of God's love was the dawn of a distinctly new vision. And the Christmas that lives in the heart, too often hidden from many in the secular festival which Christmas has become, remains profoundly countercultural, too. At its core, Christmas is foreign to everything about the culture we live in.
In these final days before Christmas, I don't know what different kinds of music you'll encounter as you go about the work of preparing. But underneath it all, may our hearts hear the quiet song that is God's great love song to us all.
And may it strengthen us to follow love's call with joy and purpose, letting go of everything else.