As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to make keep up with all the changes in popular culture.
That sentence could be the lede for an almost infinite number of examples..
In this case though, I’m thinking of the Hallmark Channel, of which I was only vaguely aware. I learned this fall that from approximately Halloween to New Year’s Day, there’s an endless stream of Christmas movies; and that on Friday nights throughout the year, Hallmark shows holiday-themed movies. Apparently other channels have followed suit. With good reason. Apparently Hallmark’s programming is so successful that for the fourth quarter last year, it was the most popular channel among women aged 19-54.
other channels have followed suit. Apparently, this programming is so successful that Hallmark wins the ratings war for the final quarter of the year with the key demographic of women 19-54.
Now, not having watched any of these films, on Hallmark or any other channel, I don’t know what they’re about, but my guess is that they are about romance, about families coming together through adversity, and that the climax is a wonderful, perfect Christmas. In this case, “perfect” almost always means white, upper-middle class. There is little racial diversity in these movies, and Hallmark faced an intense backlash when they cancelled an advertiser’s campaign because it included scenes of a same-sex couple kissing.
While they later backtracked on the ban, Hallmark’s actions, and their films, are a reminder of the power that a certain image of the “perfect Christmas” pervades our culture and our celebrations. Christmas is a time when families are supposed to come together; when lavish parties, dinners, and gift-giving abound, and while a visit to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services might be included in the traditional celebrations, other things matter more, if not explicitly, then implicitly.
Still, this desire for a “perfect Christmas” masks a deeper reality: that for many of us who lack the means to celebrate as our culture demands, for those of us who because of fractured relationships, or because we don’t fit the profile, the perfect American Christmas is impossible.
It’s funny, if you think about it; because the first Christmas was anything but perfect. An unmarried woman pregnant; a couple finding themselves without accommodation in a strange town; then being forced to flee as refugees to another country in fear for their lives; there was nothing perfect about it.
On this last Sunday of Advent, as we are distracted by plans for the holidays, all the things we still need to do; whether it’s last minute shopping, cooking, or the travel that lie ahead, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel.
As our pageant last week portrayed with wit and child-like enthusiasm, Matthew and Luke offer different perspectives on the story. Some details are the same—that Jesus’ parents come from Nazareth but that his birth takes place in Bethlehem, but others are different. In Matthew’s version, we learn much more about Joseph than in Luke. In fact, the story focuses on Joseph.
We are still in Advent, not Christmastide, so as we think about this story, it may be instructive to think about it as an Advent as well as a Christmas text. As we enter the final days of Advent, as our waiting draws to a close, to consider Joseph, and this story may deepen our understanding of the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the mystery of our Advent waiting.
In Matthew’s telling, Joseph takes center stage. It is he who is visited by an angel and told that the child she is carrying is the Savior. Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. We can take that to mean that he was a good, law-abiding Jew. He knew Torah and he knew how to keep the commandments. We want to know more about Joseph and Mary. They capture our imagination, just as the shepherds and wise men do.
But none of them are the focus of the story. It is the one who is born, not the characters in the pageant who should be the focus of our attention. Matthew shapes the story to put our focus on the Christ child in a number of ways. First, he uses a framing device that is present in the Greek, but not in our English translations. His story begins, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way. The word translated as birth is the Greek word “Genesis.” And it appears here in 1:18 for the second time in Matthew’s gospel–. Genesis is actually the second word of the gospel.
So Matthew wants his reader to think of Jesus’ birth in the context of the creation story. But there’s another important structural link in this story with the gospel as a whole. When the angel tells Joseph about the child Mary is bearing, he instructs him to name him “Emmanuel—God with us.” The gospel ends with Jesus words to his disciples before he leaves them and ascends to heaven: “Lo, I will be with you always, even until the end of the age.”
Matthew’s gospel, beginning and ending, is about God’s presence in our midst. Matthew is not just proclaiming a miraculous birth of a savior, as powerful and important as that is. He is also making a claim about the nature of God’s presence among us. To link Jesus’ birth with creation is to make a claim about what kind of God is present among us. That is to say, we experience God as creator. But unlike those who want to believe God’s creative activity took place only once—and they often want to place that creative act 6000 years ago, God continues to create. We can see God creating and sustaining the universe around us every day.
But that’s still not enough for Matthew. For by linking creation with incarnation, he is confessing that we can see God’s creative activity most clearly in Jesus Christ. That’s the mystery of the incarnation and the mystery of our faith.
It’s easy for us in the midst of all our preparations for Christmas, our hopes for the season, for happy times, renewed and deepened relationships,, it’s easy for us to lose ourfocus and to become disappointed when things don’t turn out quite as we expected. And for those of us for whom the holidays are no longer, or never have been joy-filled, we can look on their coming with dread.
Matthew’s gospel should reorient us away from all that, and allow us to focus on Christ’s coming into the world, to look for and see God’s presence among us. It’s a reminder too that whatever our expectations and hopes, whatever our fears, God came into a messy and broken world. The circumstances of God coming into the world were anything but perfect. We shouldn’t worry about all of that, we shouldn’t hope that everything will be perfect, we should hope to encounter God, to welcome and recognize God’s presence in the world around us, and in the mess and brokenness f our lives.
Joseph had a choice. When he discovered Mary was pregnant, he could have done the right thing—the right thing in Jewish law being to divorce her quietly. But when the angel came and told him that she was bearing the Messiah, he said yes. He ope ned himself to the possibility of God’s ongoing creative activity in the world. He opened himself to the possibility that God might be doing something new.
We cannot know, we cannot even fathom such a thing as confronted Joseph. But we can, like him, open our selves to that some possibility, to look for God’s redemptive presence among us, in the world and culture that surrounds us. We can also offer that redemptive presence to all those we encounter, in the coming days, and throughout our lives. When we do so, we participate in God’s great ongoing creative work in the world.