The lectionary text this week is quite challenging for me as a male. It is the story of a “righteous” man whose sense of obligation to the law and his culture convinced him to leave an unwed teenage mother and her child to their own demise. The circumstance of Mary’s mysterious conception is clearly the source of scandal, not only to Joseph, but the entire community who cannot fathom God’s work. It is in the midst of this biblical narrative that I have come to accept that I am part of a culture that considers it righteous to leave behind women and children if they do not fit the expected categories of decency and purity. I am part of a culture that still considers women to be property.
I, like many other Guatemalans, come from a scandalous bloodline. It is not because I was conceived outside of marriage. It is because the whole culture and ethnicity that I come from is born out of the rape and pillage of Spanish conquistadores against indigenous women. So, you see, we are good at being scandalous in Guatemala. Even more so, we are good at rejecting anything that reminds us of that scandalous background. The shame of this has conditioned us to reject anything that reminds us of our scandalous past and this, of course, dooms us to repeat it. For that reason, I cannot turn away from the Gospel narrative so quickly, even when a deeper dive feels convicting.
Not too many years ago, in a community marked by a history of scandalous events, I encountered one of the wittiest and smartest kids I have ever met. His name was Kevin. Kevin understood what it meant to come from a scandalous background. He was the offspring of an incestous relationship that made him a brother to his uncles. His mother had been left to her own demise by many “Josephs” who were too righteous to engage with her beyond the sexual favors that she could provide them. As a result, he had to grow up seeing a parade of men coming and going from his life. He had sad eyes that reflected the hopeless environment that he grew up in. As I got to know him, however, I realized that he was more like Jesus than he could fathom — born in scandal.
So, as I read the lectionary text for this week, the week we remember Jesus’ conception, I cannot help but think about Kevin and his mother. I think of Jesus’ grandmothers mentioned in the genealogy at the beginning of the chapter: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. They all endured scandalous stories at great odds. This week’s text reminds us of the scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth and bloodline. One cannot separate the fact that Mary was an unwed mother from the scandalous reality of the other four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy at the beginning of the chapter. Even more so, I cannot close my eyes to the fact that a “righteous” man is willing to leave his soon to be wife and baby to their own demise.
Some credit Joseph because he is willing to leave her “in secret,” thus helping her avoid the most severe and humiliating lifelong punishments (or even the possibility of death). I find little comfort in this, given the fact that it took a heavenly messenger to stop the abandonment, or possible execution, of the Mother of God.
For that reason, I think this text is an invitation to all of us who might consciously or subconsciously consider ourselves to be on the “righteous” end of the spectrum, and even more so to those of us who think of ourselves as “righteous” men; How long are we going to keep secretly abandoning all the women, poor, and marginalized people so the guilt of their public humiliation, exile, and sometimes even death, do not weigh over our heads?
How many heavenly messengers do we need to make us act on behalf of those who are left behind by a system that keeps asking for blood…a system that does so in the name of cultural norms and religious laws that don’t align with the movement of a God that chose to be born from below?
Thankfully, heavenly messengers are already among us. For me, it was present in the face of Kevin, a kid who was born in scandal who taught me that I could not keep walking away in secret. Let us allow this advent season to wake us up to the reality of our sins with the hope of Advent and the birth of Christ in all of us.