On Thursday night, a friend of mine and I went to the Memorial Art Gallery. I hadn’t been for a couple of years, and I enjoyed seeing some of my favorite paintings from their permanent collection, as well as some paintings I didn’t remember seeing before. But the real treat of the evening was a special exhibition called “Memory Theater.” The exhibition explores, through art, how memory shapes both personal and cultural identities. There were a couple of really cool artworks. One, called “Memory Cloud” by Judith Levy, featured hundreds of small slide viewers suspended from the ceiling. You peer into the viewers and see photographs, people lined up and smiling, posing outside houses or next to cars. It was like looking through the photo albums of other families. I recently spent a lot of time digitizing my dad’s slides, pictures he took when we were kids. And the photos in the little slide viewers were familiar, even though of course I didn’t know the people in them. There’s a young mother sitting in a chair with her newborn infant. There’s the family dressed up for some occasion, the older boy looking awkward in that adolescent way and the younger girl with her hair done up. In some photos, people smile in a natural, sunny way, and others look like there’s just been a bit of an argument, or that perhaps the photo session has gone on a little too long. I could have spent hours peering into the little viewers at the pictures.
Another installation invited viewers to write on sticky notes either something they wish they could remember, or something about their earliest memory. The responses were fascinating. There were of course the somewhat obnoxious answers that probably were posted by bored teenagers. But there were also things like, “I wish I could remember what my mom was like before she started drinking,” or “I wish I could remember what my grandfather’s voice sounded like.” The responses filled a wall, covering up layer upon layer of earlier post-its, and I could have spend hours leafing through them, as well.
Several of the artworks, and several of the quotes posted around the gallery, warned about the fallibility of memory, how we tend to remember things that never happened, or how our memories of events shift and change over time so that our memories bear little resemblance to the truth. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” Now, there were other quotes I wanted to remember, but I left my phone in my coat hanging outside the gallery. The irony of this situation is not lost on me. In any case, if you have some free time this holiday week, or maybe some restless houseguests, you might consider visiting the Memorial Art Gallery and checking out this exhibition on memory – it closes on the 29th.
Memory is a tricky thing, and I suspect that as we read the story about Joseph and his dream in Matthew’s gospel this morning that most of us were remembering all the rest of the Christmas story. There’s the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, and the conversation the two of them have before Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” There’s the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census, a trip undertaken in spite of the fact that Mary is very, very pregnant. There’s no room in the inn, so there’s the stable with the cows and the donkey, and Jesus born and wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger. There are the shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night, and the angels appearing to them and singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!” and sending them to Bethlehem. All of those beautiful details are implanted so clearly in our memories from countless Christmas pageants and television specials and nativity scenes and Christmas eve services. But this is where our memories deceive us. None of those details, the angel and Mary and the census and the stable and the manger and the angels and the shepherds, none of them are in Matthew’s gospel: they are in Luke’s gospel. Luke’s gospel tells us about the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective; Matthew tells us about Jesus’s birth from Joseph’s perspective. In Luke’s account, Mary talks to the angel Gabriel; in Matthew’s account, only the angel speaks, and then only in a dream: Joseph remains silent. Luke’s account is long and detailed and vivid; Matthew’s account is spare, maybe leaving us longing for just a bit more information. Today I’d like to look closely at Matthew’s version of Jesus’s birth and explore what Matthew may be trying to tell us about how God works and how God is inviting us to live.
Matthew starts his story in a simple, forthright way, filling us in on some background information. Mary is engaged to Joseph. Marriage in the ancient world worked a bit differently than it does today. An engagement was really a legal contract: for all intents and purposes, Mary is married to Joseph, even though they are not yet living together. So, when it turns out that Mary is pregnant, it really means she has committed adultery. Matthew tells us, the readers, that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit, but Joseph doesn’t know that yet. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, he is a just man, meaning he does his best to follow the law, he tries to do the right thing. Under the law, Joseph has an obligation to divorce Mary because she has committed adultery. If Joseph divorces Mary publicly, it will bring great shame on her and on her child, and she will be forced to live out the rest of her days on the margins of society, trying to beg or steal enough food to eat. Although it is within his rights to do that, in fact it is what is expected of Joseph or any man in his situation, Joseph can’t bring himself to punish Mary in that way. He decides to divorce her quietly, not make a big deal about it, and thus give her a small chance at starting over and rebuilding her life. But Matthew tells us that just as Joseph resolves to do this, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “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 saved people from their sins.” And then Matthew explains what this means. He writes, “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.’ Maybe those words sounded familiar to you this morning, because we read that in our lesson from Isaiah, from chapter seven: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Now, I know some of you have seen programs on television or read articles about whether or not Mary was in fact a virgin. That whole discussion revolves around how these two verses, the original verse from Isaiah and Matthew’s quotation of it, have been translated over the centuries. Isaiah writes in Hebrew, and the word he uses is almah, which is most often translated ‘young woman’ in our bibles today. Matthew writes in Greek, and when he opened up his Greek version of Isaiah and turned to this verse, he found the Greek word parthenos, which most often means virgin, but can also mean young woman. This is the sort of thing that gets biblical scholars excited, but I don’t know that it provides a cut and dried answer to the question. I think if Mary’s virginity is important to your understanding of who she was and who Jesus was, that is well and good and there is plenty of support for that view in the bible and in our tradition. If, on the other hand, you find Mary’s virginity to be a sort of roadblock, something you can’t get your head around, something that you just can’t swallow, I think that there is space for you in the biblical accounts and in our tradition. One of the great gifts of the Episcopal church, and one of the main reasons I am an Episcopalian and why I wanted to be ordained in this church, is that we make room for questions and for doubts; in fact, we welcome them.
In any case, back to our story. When Joseph wakes up from this dream, his life, which was already a mess, is now even more complicated. Joseph had figured what he thought was the right thing to do in the situation, a solution that met his legal obligation and showed some compassion for Mary. But God is asking for more. God is asking for more than righteousness, more than the just thing, more than even the decent thing: God is asking Joseph to be gracious. God is asking Joseph to take Mary as his wife, and to in essence adopt her child as his own. And for reasons that I cannot completely comprehend, Joseph does exactly that. He doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t moan, “Oh, why me?”, he doesn’t make excuses or try and weasel his way out. Martin Copenhaver, a preacher and writer I like a lot, puts it this way: “No wonder Matthew seems to have a particular fondness for Joseph. Here is a righteous man who surveys a mess he had nothing to do with creating and decides to believe that God is present in it. With every reason to discount it all, to walk away from it in search of a neater and more controlled life with a more conventional wife, Joseph does not do that. He claims the scandal, he owns the mess, he legitimates it, and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born.”
Maybe your life has not turned out exactly how you thought it would. A promotion you wanted went to someone else. The relationship you thought would last a lifetime ended after a few years. The nest egg you planned to live on in retirement took a hit in the great recession and you’re left with much less than you hoped. Maybe you’re tempted to walk out the door and keep going, hoping to outrun the mess you leave behind. Maybe it seems like you have fewer and fewer options, that you’re being backed into a corner and there’s no way out. I think the good news of this simple story from Matthew is that God is with us in the messiness of our lives. God works through broken dreams, devastating disappointments, and impossible situations, breaking into the world in unexpected ways. Whatever you remember about this simple story from Matthew, even if you add back in the shepherds and the angels and the stable and the cows and the manger, I hope you will remember this: God is with us, in the simple, mundane, messiness of our everyday lives. Maybe remembering that can help us to be like Joseph, to do more than the right thing, more than the just thing, even more than the decent thing: Maybe remembering that God is with us can help us do the grace-filled thing when the chips are down. Maybe remembering that God is with us can help us to bring new life into the world even when that seems impossible. Amen.