On the surface it seems that Joseph has 2 choices.
He can abide by the Law of Moses and hand over Mary to be judged with the likely result being Mary is stoned to death for adultery. Maybe this is why Jesus has so much compassion for the woman caught in adultery during his mission tour when the people brought her to him and wanted to stone her. (John 8:1-11) Maybe he realised that this could easily have happened to his own mother.
The other choice for Joseph was to say nothing and quietly abandon Mary which is what seems to be the decision he had made: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly”. (Matthew 1:19)
But Joseph is now confronted with a 3rd choice as an angel of the Lord comes to him to tell him what has actually happened – that Mary was not unfaithful to him but in fact faithful to God in bearing God’s own Son. It seems on the surface an inconsiderate thing for God to do:
Firstly putting Mary in danger of her life and secondly it opened up Joseph for ridicule. Why couldn’t God take Mary and Joseph’s first born and appoint him like he had done with other Old Testament heroes – like Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and King David. In each of those cases God selected someone already born to be his servant.
Couldn’t God have done a similar thing with Jesus, born of Mary and Joseph?
What we need to understand is that what happens at Christmas with Mary and Joseph is not just a story which sometimes sounds like a fairy tale like Cinderella or Snow White meeting their prince charming. No, what is happening here is so significant that it changed the course of time, even though many would love to rid society of BC and AD (Before Christ and anno domini “in the year of our Lord”). But it also changed the course of humanity by beginning the reconciliation process of God and humanity completed at Easter. The Virgin birth was necessary because the child born needed to be free from Original Sin which affects all human beings through Adam and Eve. Since death is the consequence for sin – as Paul points out in Romans – the wages of sin is death – Jesus’ death at Easter needed to be for our sin and not his own.
And to do that Jesus needed to be born without sin. So Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not by Joseph meaning his own death was not the consequence of his sin but payment for our sins. And that is so important to understand.
It is not a fairy tale even though at times it sounds like one – a young unmarried couple – no room at the inn – a baby born in a barn in a feeding trough – it sounds like a romantic fairy tale of a young couple beating the odds. But this is not a fairy tale – but it is a love story. It is God’s love for the world and working out how he is going to deal with sin that is going to separate human beings from his eternal love forever if God did not intervene. And this is where Mary was also significant.
Mary is there representing humanity, as we confess – born of the Virgin Mary. In order to pay for human sin Jesus also needed to be fully human which came from his birth through Mary. And that’s why God didn’t just select an angel from heaven to come to earth. The one dying for sins had to be human to die the human death. But he also needed to be free from Original Sin so that his death was not payment for his own sin – therefore he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not Joseph.
So even though it seems a strange story – one that has been romanticised in Christmas Carols and Christmas Plays – the birth of Jesus to Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit – is a deeply theological action necessary by God to save us that goes beyond our understanding. And it also highlights just how serious sin is that it couldn’t simply have been ignored by God.
As Paul said – the wages of sin is death – BUT – the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
Christmas is a beautiful time of year where we exchange gifts, get together with family, put lights on our homes, take some time off, sing carols and watch the children dress up as shepherds, angels, Mary and Joseph. But we must never forget the deep theological meaning that sits at the heart of the birth of Jesus – conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Virgin Mary.
This is our reconciliation with God that will not be broken ever again by God. This is God’s solemn promise to us that our sin will no longer separate us and that is why God named him Jesus – for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) And he will be called: Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” The sin which banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and God’s presence has been dealt with and “God is with us”. And so Jesus last word at his death was “it is finished”. (John 19:3). The work of God was finished – the work of reconciling us by paying for our sins was finished – God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We often complain at this time of year at the treatment of Christmas. They’ve replaced Merry Christmas on cards with Happy Holidays. They’ve banned Christmas Carols from many school end of year programs and other public places.
They start selling Christmas things in the supermarkets around October and we believe that the world is commercialising Christmas. But in reality the world is not the one doing the harm to Christmas. Only we do harm to Christmas when forget what Christmas truly means for me. God has sent his Son to save me and to be with me always. But we allow the stresses of Christmas to affect us. In fact I have heard some Christians say “I hate Christmas”. But no Christian should ever hate Christmas. No, we should embrace it and use it as an opportunity to reach out to people with God’s love.
Christmas is about God coming to us and breaking down everything that had separated us from him. And we now have the opportunity to be like Joseph and forget about what others might say and trust God. We too can be like Joseph and not worry about what the world is doing and rejoice in what God is doing. The worst thing we can do is react to the way the world is treating Christmas and lose the message we are called to share. We see that happen when we attack other religions for the banning of Christmas celebrations. In our response we can easily fight fire with fire and retaliate with words that hurt and do not reflect the love of God.
Joseph’s response was simple. He took Mary home to be his wife and didn’t respond to any accusation. Like Joseph let us be examples of God’s love that has broken into the world and despite what the world says or does to Christmas let us be the true spirit of Christmas as agents of God’s love.