One of my favorite classic holiday movies is “White Christmas.” It’s pure Christmas magic when Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye croon “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and then it actually snows and the old general gets to save his ski resort from bankruptcy thanks to the help of old friends and mother nature. Are you dreaming of a White Christmas? I’m dreaming of a warm Christmas today.
Joseph had a very clear and, actually, startling dream, as recorded in our Gospel reading. I think it’s interesting that the other famous Joseph in Scripture was also a dreamer. In the first book of the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Isaac had dreams that shaped the history and the faith of the Hebrew people. Now in the first book of the New Testament, the dream of another Joseph signaled the beginning of what we call the Christian faith.
Joseph went to sleep disturbed by some bad relationship news. The text says that his fiancé was pregnant and he wasn’t the dad. Really bad news. No wonder he slept fitfully. We’re told that an angel appeared to Joseph in the dream with a message. That’s what angels mostly do. They are celestial messengers described in Scripture as spiritual beings that serve at God’s pleasure. Angels are featured in the birth narratives of Jesus when they bring news to Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men. There’s a reason we dress children in white with halos and wings at our pageant each year. We would never have heard about Christmas if the message hadn’t first been delivered by angels.
Before Joseph dreamed, he decided that the best way to deal with his relationship nightmare was to break off the engagement. He was heartbroken, but he had enough integrity and presence of mind to want to protect his fiancé Mary from embarrassment. Many men, whether in the ancient Middle East or anywhere today would have resorted to shaming and blaming to soothe their wrecked egos.
The angel appeared just in time to intercept Joseph’s plan. In the dream, the angel pleaded with Joseph to go ahead and marry Mary. That’s where the story gets kind of weird and where a major and even defining doctrine of the Christian faith is introduced. Joseph learned that the father of Mary’s baby wasn’t another man. It was God. The rules of nature had been suspended and the Holy Spirit intervened to impregnate a young woman. The child was God’s own and a Hebrew scripture was fulfilled, according to Matthew: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”
The virgin birth is a core concept for many if not most adherents of the Christian faith. The oldest affirmations of the church make sure that it is prominent. The Nicene Creed calls Jesus the “begotten of God the Father.” The Apostles’ Creed, which many of us memorized as youth, nails it down even further, saying that Jesus is God’s only son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
Let me ask you this: Is the Bible anti-science? Was the angel who visited Joseph a science-denier? I’ve thought quite a bit about that this week. Day after day, we have learned about actual or potential new leaders of our government who question or outright deny what has become agreed scientific understanding on climate change and human sexuality and evolution. In our era, denying or devaluing science is usually a means to some nefarious end. It’s not hard to look at Matthew chapter 1, then, with some skepticism. After all, we know where babies come from. There are plenty of biblical scholars who have pointed out similarities between the virgin birth of Jesus and the stories of miraculous births common at that time in nearby Egypt and Greece. Others have noted that the use in Matthew of the words of Hebrew prophesy that speaks of a virgin can more simply and perhaps more accurately be translated as “a young woman” in its original context.
This is one of those places where it is helpful to remind ourselves, I think, that our church tends to adhere to the principle of taking scripture seriously, though not necessarily literally. If we take scripture seriously, we might not immediately scoff at the first chapter of Matthew as anti-science. In the same way, the first chapter of the Old Testament which describes God’s action in creating the earth and sky and sea and animals and people can be seen as anti-science or it can be viewed as a statement from a faith that emerged in a world before Darwin and the disciplines of geology and biology.
It’s not that people in the time of Jesus didn’t understand the basics of where babies came from. But the writers of the gospel of Matthew – or those who edited it later – were convinced that Jesus was so special that an ordinary conception and birth could not do him justice. Interestingly, only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ miraculous birth, and none of the epistle authors reference it, although their writings are the basis for most Christian doctrine.
I don’t think of the Bible as being anti-science. I do believe that many who hold to scripture as literal and inerrant are in fact science-deniers and will be so regardless of any scientific evidence to the contrary, but the Bible is not a science text and was never intended to be so. It tells the stories of persons trying to make sense of the world in light of their belief in an all-powerful and creative, supreme being. At the same time, I believe it is valuable to be open to any and all possibilities in this universe. Even science reveals wonders that are way beyond my very limited understanding. I’m willing to keep my mind open to anything God is yet to reveal.
The angel in our story told Joseph that he would save God’s people from their sins. Salvation in its broadest sense is a call to wholeness and peace that validates and protects the lives of all people.
The reading by Alfred Delp on the meaning of Advent is all the more significant when we realize it was written during the horrors of World War 2. Father Delp was a German Catholic priest and philosopher who was part of the resistance movement in opposition to the Nazi regime. Although he was not directly involved in the plot to kill Hitler, he was arrested and imprisoned. He was executed in 1945, just before the war ended. When he wrote about destruction and annihilation and the weeping of despair and helplessness, he was doing so as a first hand witness.
This past week, through the double-edged wonders of television and internet, we have witnessed unspeakable suffering in Aleppo, Syria. Almost immediately after we breathed a sigh of relief that innocent civilians would be able to escape from that city, we learned that the deal for a cease fire fell through. We saw videos of men and women saying goodbye from ruined buildings. We read texts from a seven year old girl sharing the plight of her family. The story in Luke’s Gospel of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem has been much too real during this season meant for peace and joy.
Father Delp knew of the bodies lined up in German concentration camps when he managed to write about hope from his prison cell. He created a picture for us of a mild light barely appearing on the horizon hinting of a much more radiant fulfillment yet to come. Although still far off, the beginning of a brighter future is already breaking forth today. I wonder how much faith it takes to write with that kind of certainty when facing one’s own execution?
When Joseph woke up from his sleep, he moved up the wedding date and made sure that Mary became his wife. He formed his own little resistance movement by defying anyone who would suggest that Mary was worthy of abandonment. Together, Mary and Joseph welcomed a child into a world that is filled with danger. That child was not just named Jesus but was dubbed “Emmanuel” in Joseph’s dream. God is with us. Jesus' entrance into the world was a light on the horizon that became brighter as he brought joy to his parents and grew up and delivered a message to lift up the value of those whose lives are despised or considered dispensable.
Does Christmas evoke any dreams for you?
We can be part of a resistance movement that refuses to accept the normalization of oppression and violence, whether that happens in Aleppo or anywhere else. We can resist any authority that denies science and therefore truth for the sake of short-sighted goals or personal interest. And we can resist the hopelessness that would keep our selves or our world in its grip if we let it. Don’t be afraid to dream, and don’t be afraid to act. God is with us. Even now. Emmanuel!