joyful mystery #3: the nativity

The third of the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary is the Nativity, the birth of Jesus, which the Church celebrates each year as Christmas.  The story is familiar to us, though only two of the four canonical gospels actually tell the story, and we piece together images and assumptions from both as well as from other traditional stories.  Since we’ve just had two stories from Luke, I chose the nativity story from Matthew’s gospel.  The New Revised Standard Version is below, and four other English versions are available here.

 

Gabriel, by Niall McAuley
Gabriel, by Niall McAuley

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 fulfill 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.

Betrothment of Mary to Joseph XCIIIIv, from the Nuremburg Chronicle
Betrothment of Mary to Joseph XCIIIIv, from the Nuremburg Chronicle

It isn’t quite the nativity story we’re used to, is it?  We don’t see much of pregnant Mary, no trip to Bethlehem, no stable or cave or manger, no shepherds or angels.  There are magi, in the next chapter, but none of the wonderful mother-and-child stuff we get in Luke’s account.  Really, this is a pretty manly story, isn’t it?  It’s about Joseph, son of David, and the yet-to-be-born boy Jesus.  And this angel isn’t nice and sweet — Joseph isn’t heaped with blessings, but is given some straightforward instructions: (1) Quit your whining.  (2) Marry the girl.  (3) Name the boy Jesus.  Straightforward.  Direct.  Masculine.  One, two, three.

But there is a tantalizing little bit in there that isn’t quite so masculine, though it is disguised.  It is the angel’s address: Joseph, son of David.  Just that.  See, the name David means “the beloved” or “the friend.”  So Joseph is addressed as son of the beloved.

Let that roll around in your mind and heart for a moment.  Imagine yourself in Joseph’s place.  You are tossing and turning at night, troubled by what you feel you have to do about your bride-to-be, and a messenger from God comes to you.  You’re startled (to say the least), but then the angel addresses you by name, adding son of the beloved, or maybe daughter of the beloved.  That feels awfully nice, doesn’t it?

Sprung from Jesse, by Lawrence OP
Sprung from Jesse, by Lawrence OP

Jesus is addressed a number of times in the gospels as son of David.  Just as Joseph is a descendant of King David, so is Jesus.  So right smack in the middle of this oh-so-masculine little story, we have this beautiful love note from God.  And in that love note, we can see the infant Jesus nestled in the arms of his loving mother.  We can hear the singing angels, see the gathering shepherds, feel the scratchy straw and smell the animals and touch the softness of the baby’s cheek.

Leaf from an Ivory Diptych with the Crucifixion and Nativity, by peterjr1961
Leaf from an Ivory Diptych with the Crucifixion and Nativity, by peterjr1961

It feels strange to reflect on these Joyful Mysteries as I prepare for Holy Week and the walk to Calvary with Jesus.  It is hard to hold the image of Jesus being flogged and crucified in my mind, at the same time I see Jesus as a helpless infant in Mary’s arms.  But then, at both the beginning and the end of his life, Jesus is helpless in the hands of another human.  He begins his earthly life as an infant, God trusting the life of God’s son to Mary and Joseph.  And Jesus meets his end, placing his life in the hands of the Sanhedrin — the spiritual authorities — and in the hands of the Roman (secular) authorities.  Jesus makes himself helpless, in order to set us all free.  The son of the beloved makes himself helpless, in order to make all of us children of the beloved.

Remember this, always.  You are God’s son or God’s daughter.  You are the beloved.  In you, God is well pleased.

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