‘The greatest story ever told’ kicks off in today’s gospel with a rather controversial opening scene. You might not have picked up on any controversy there, as you’ve heard that episode so many times. Or perhaps you missed it because it’s a tiny part of the much greater story, a part of seemingly minor importance. So, where’s the controversy in that story in today’s gospel?
We have an engaged but as-yet unmarried couple. As with most such couples, they have plans and expectations for their future together, their dreams and their visions. In real life, the plans of each partner can differ quite significantly; often such differences do not surface until well after the wedding, and sometimes those differences turn out to be so extreme as to be irreconcilable, leading to a falling-out between the parties and even to divorce. Let’s look at the situation in today’s gospel, while putting aside the benefit of hindsight. There was a man, Joseph by name, who was to marry a girl, Mary. They got engaged, but at some point Mary turned out to be pregnant. Joseph was certain that this was not his child. To him it appeared that his fiancée must have been unfaithful to her future husband even before they got married. For Joseph, in his culture there was only one way forward – for him to call off the marriage, to leave her and to seek someone else to be his wife. Quite likely he was disappointed, maybe embittered, and he was almost certainly deeply hurt. I guess that when he went to bed he was in a half-asleep-half-awake (‘hypnagogic’, since you ask) state of mind, holding internal, never-ending conversations with himself and God about the whole ghastly situation. Next morning – or maybe a few days later – he made up his mind and decided to marry Mary anyway and to bring up her child. A very kind, generous and highly admirable attitude!
‘The greatest story ever told’ kicks off in today’s gospel with a rather uneasy opening scene. More were to follow over the next 30-odd years all the way to the shameful killing of Jesus on the cross. Some of the scenes were controversial, some of them were touching, some of them even gut-wrenching. It’s the same in your life, and mine, and in everybody else’s. Extremely rarely – if ever – is there someone whose life has been an easy ride from cradle to grave. Yes, some people seem to have a more privileged life than others; certainly, there are people whose share of bad luck or suffering seems to be greater than others’. We can – and we should – be stirred by inequality and unfairness. Blaming, judging, condemning, labelling… these and other accusatory behaviours are the easiest but also the least effective way of facing our problems, particularly those which leave us feeling totally helpless. Should we or shouldn’t we have intervened militarily in Syria; would have that helped, or not? This is just one large-scale example of a situation that seems to defy solution, where none of the options or ways forward we can come up with seems viable. Every now and again we ourselves encounter situations that faze us on a personal or family level, or as a community. Whenever we come up against a brick wall, we could perhaps take a leaf out of Joseph’s book: and here it is. Think less about my own inconvenience, and more about coming to someone else’s relief. Be kind and generous! At the end of the day, isn’t that the spirit of Christmas? Kindness and generosity!