In the Good Lord's Time, Christ Appeared
Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ differs considerably from the more popular version in Luke. As we read through the Advent tale in Matthew’s gospel, it takes a little reading to reach the point where Christmas is upon us (Matt. 1:18-25). The popular but difficult combination of Luke’s account–mixing the purity of angels with the godlessness of shepherds–is missing here. Instead, there is something even more improbably likely: the hope of all the earth takes shape under the sign of arrangements being made for a betrothal apparently violated. It is just like the God who creates out of nothing and raises the dead to carry on in this way: to hide the gifts of grace and sovereignty in the midst of what appears tawdry and happenstance.
The story is particular enough to be offensive. Going by the customs of the time, Mary was probably just out of puberty—14 or 15 at the most. Like countless other young women, before or since, she has turned up pregnant before the wedding. The best explanation, then as now, is the oldest one: whether out of curiosity or adolescent rebellion, she had given herself prematurely. Knowing that he is not the father, Joseph is going to do the right thing and take a quiet out.
This is a long way from the exuberant hopes set forth earlier in the story. Sublime expectation of a cosmic reversal of fortunes is here linked to the most common kind of predicament: an apparently illegitimate child, the product of a private, unratified passion. The One who is to come is branded from the beginning as the one who came too early: a bastard child, “born of fornication,” as his critics in John’s Gospel so infelicitously implied with their decorous insult (John 8:41).
“Found to be with child of the Holy Spirit,” the text says (v. 9). By whom, one wonders. Certainly not by the Jews of John 8; surely not by the neighbor women and not by Joseph either, who was preparing to depart. For all of them there was a more reasonable explanation, so compelling any other alternative seemed preposterous.
Yet the angel of Joseph’s dream, running the risk of being considered yet another fiction, makes a startling claim for this child: “You shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Hope arises here under the sign of its opposite. For the promise of forgiveness is once more, in the biblical apocalyptic, far more than bourgeois therapeutic self-acceptance—the resignation to futility. It is the declaration of a new future, a future granted now not merely as the consequence of the past but under the control of One who can literally grace it. To be forgiven is to receive a future that is under the control not of the previous failure or offense, but which is in the hands of One who can actually affect a new condition. Forgiveness breaks the simple link between cause and effect, action and reaction, failure and disaster, rebellion and resentment or recrimination. Forgiveness inserts a new condition upon which the future stands. It is Jesus’ trademark, his very identity, that he bestows such a gift.
On the strength of the angel’s claim, the church asserts one of its own: from the beginning, it was always God’s intention that it should happen this way. It is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, Matthew declares (v. 22): the hope of all the ages, the beginning of the end of all the old tyrannies, the restoration of everything that is and will be, was always meant to take place in a virgin’s belly, in a manger, at the cross.
That is Advent. It is a time of expectation and repentance, fired by the declaration that in the Lord’s good time Christ appeared, taking hold of all time to unfold it according to His purpose. So, we await His coming, ears cocked amidst the rowdy cries of the delight and disappointments of conspicuous consumption. This One will not disappoint you or your people, but tearing you free, will open up a new world.