A Voice From The Isles:
Today at this Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil on Christmas Eve we are each invited to come to the birth of Christ. Just as the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, called Joseph to “his own city,” Bethlehem, so we are called to our own city, Manchester, to register our commitment to Christ, to declare what Christmas means to us. That angel who spoke to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem speaks to us too: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord…”
Those words in the second chapter of the Gospel of St Luke from the unidentified angel, possibly Gabriel, are taken up by the “multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The response of the shepherds is precisely the response that the Lord asks now from each of us: “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” What does this request mean for our lives—“to go straight to Bethlehem” in order to see the Christ child? It means that like the shepherds, we are asked to go “in a hurry” and find our “way to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.” Notice that both the shepherds and us are being asked to find our way to three persons, the Virgin Mary and Joseph and Christ. It is important for both the shepherds and for us that if we can find our way to the Virgin Mary and Joseph together, there we will find Christ.
How and where did the Virgin Mary and Joseph come together? You will perhaps recall how the Protoevangelium of James described how the Virgin Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anna, had been raised in the Temple precincts from the age of three. Chapters 8 to 14 of that same second century document, the Protoevangelium of James, tell us how the Virgin Mary and Joseph came together. When the Virgin Mary was 12 years old, it was time for her to leave the Temple precincts; and the Council of Priests prayed about where she should go. The High Priest Zacharias went into the Holy of Holies; and an angel appeared to him and said, “Go forth and assemble … the widowers of the people, and let [every man] bring a rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be.”
And so it was done. The widowers were assembled; and when Joseph threw down his rod before the High Priest “a dove came forth of the rod and flew upon the beard of Joseph. And the [High] Priest said unto Joseph, ‘Unto thee has it fallen to take the virgin of the Lord and keep her for thyself.’” Joseph was not pleased. In fact, at first he refused to take the Virgin Mary home with him, “saying, ‘I have sons, and I am an old man, but she is a girl: I [shall] become a laughing-stock to the children of Israel.’ And the priest said unto Joseph, ‘Hear the Lord thy God, and remember what things God did unto Dathan and Abiram and Korah [who opposed Moses and Aaron], how the earth [split open] and they were swallowed up because of their [refusal to obey God]. And now fear thou, Joseph, lest it be so in thine house.’ And Joseph was afraid, and took [the Virgin Mary] to keep her for himself. And Joseph said unto Mary, ‘Lo, I have received thee out of the Temple of the Lord: and now do I leave thee in my house, and I go away to build my buildings, and I will come again unto thee. The Lord shall watch over thee.’”
We do not know precisely how the Virgin Mary lived in Nazareth in the home of Joseph. Bishop Nikolai Velimrović of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who died in 1956, has pointed out in The Prologue from Ochrid that the life the Virgin Mary lived in the home of Joseph was probably similar to her earlier life when she was under the care of the Temple priests, because her focus continued to be to read the Sacred Scriptures [that is, the Old Testament], to pray, to fast and to make handcrafts.
Now, Joseph was away from his home and from the Virgin Mary for many months. It was during that time that Christ was conceived within her womb. The Protoevangelium of James takes up the story: “Now it was the sixth month with her, and behold Joseph came from his building, and he entered into his house and found her great with child. And he [inflicted a heavy blow on] his face, and cast himself down upon the ground on sackcloth and wept bitterly, saying: ‘With what countenance shall I look unto the Lord my God? And what prayer shall I make concerning this maiden? For I received her out of the temple of the Lord my God a virgin, and have not kept her safe. . .’ And Joseph arose from off the sackcloth and called Mary and said unto her, ‘O thou that was cared for by God, why hast thou done this? Thou hast forgotten the Lord thy God. . . .’ But she wept bitterly, saying: ‘. . As the Lord my God lives, I know not whence [this child] is come unto me.’”
“And Joseph was sore afraid and . . . [and] left her alone, and pondered what he should do with her. And Joseph said: ‘If I hide her sin, I shall be found fighting against the law of the Lord: and if I manifest her unto the children of Israel, I fear lest that which is in her be the seed of an angel, and I shall be found delivering up innocent blood to the judgement of death. What then shall I do? . . .’ And the night came upon him. And behold an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying: ‘Fear not, for this child . . . which is in her is of the Holy [Spirit], and she shall bear a son and thou shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.’ And Joseph arose from sleep and glorified the God of Israel [who] had shown this favour unto her: and he watched over her.”
The rest of the story of St Joseph and the Virgin Mary is related in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke—how Christ was born in Bethlehem, how the three wise men came to bring gifts, and how Joseph was warned to depart for Egypt to ensure the safety of the Christ Child, the Theotokos and himself. For St Joseph, the pregnancy of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ was a remarkable and life-changing event, just as it is for us. Note that when St Joseph is confused and unsure what to do, his response is consistently to pray. He does not rush into action; he does not assume that his first idea is right, but he listens to the Lord and His messengers; and after he listens, St Joseph acts.
The story of the Incarnation of Christ—of how Christ was born of the Virgin Mary is remarkable, full of miracles that really did happen. St Ambrose has reflected: “See how divine care adds faith. An angel [speaks to] Mary; an angel [speaks to] Joseph; an angel [speaks to] the shepherds. It does not suffice that a messenger is sent once. For every word stands with two or three witnesses,” says St Ambrose. The Virgin Mary clearly knew the importance of what had happened to her. As St Bede has written in his Homilies on the Gospels, “Mary was comparing these things which she had read [in the Old Testament] were to occur with those which she recognized as already having occurred. Nevertheless she did not bring these things forth from her mouth but kept them closed up in her heart.” As the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 2, Verse 19 relates: “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
Just as St Joseph prayed his way through the challenges of life, so the Theotokos has read and knows the Bible, that is, the Old Testament, well; and she uses that knowledge of the Bible as a bedrock on which to understand life. Like St Joseph, the Theotokos does not rush to decisions nor rush to communicate to others what she believes is happening to her.
Many, many years ago, when I was in junior school, I was invited to be St Joseph in the school nativity play. However, my mother declined the invitation on my behalf, because she told the school principal and me that it was not appropriate for a young Jewish boy to be Joseph in a school play celebrating a Christian festival. She was quite wrong; it was entirely appropriate for a Jewish boy to play the role of St Joseph, but then within the framework of her Jewish life, St Joseph posed many problems.
To conclude, St Joseph and the Theotokos were confronted with far more challenges in their lives than any of us are ever likely to experience. However, their responses to those immense challenges offer us responses from which we can learn. May we all pray, read and reflect on the Bible, and wait to act until we understand how the Lord wishes us to act. That I believe is part of the message of Christmas that we celebrate tomorrow. The Incarnation has happened; and part of our response can be to learn to pray, to read and reflect on the Bible and to understand how the Lord wishes us to act. As we take that message into ourselves, we can indeed turn to each other tomorrow morning and say, “Happy Christmas. Happy Incarnation. Be happy becoming one with Christ today and throughout the years to come.”