“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. The husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
We began this year’s Advent series by exploring The Waiting Rooms of Christmas. We waited in the Apocalypse and peace found us. We waited in the Wilderness and a garden of grace grew in our midst. We waited in Prison and we discovered ourselves set free. Finally, we wait with Mary in the shameful spotlight of Public Disgrace, which calls forth the most precious gift of all-Emmanuel, God with us, who transforms the waiting room, the waiter, and even the waiting itself by God’s very presence.
Public disgrace, and the shame that fuels it, is perhaps the hardest of all the rooms to occupy. Shame disfigures the soul. It dehumanizes both the shamed and the shamer. It is the evil art of the Accuser. Guilt works on us at the level of our actions. But shame attacks us at the level of who we are, our identity, like a hungry pack of jackals gnawing at our very soul.
In this week’s text, Joseph refuses to expose Mary to public disgrace over the confounding terms of her conception. This is no small act in a culture where public disgrace (especially for women) is certain doom. Knowing the danger of her situation, I imagine Mary turned to the great grandmothers of Christmas for courage and comfort. Of course, I am speaking of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, who are mentioned in the genealogy of Matthew. Each of them represents a story of public disgrace that nearly cost them their lives, and yet they were the progenitors of Jesus-the grandmothers of Christmas.
These four are the only women included in Matthew’s list. They stand out in bold relief. They are also the only foreigners, which makes Jesus a mixed-race savior. For many centuries, the Church deemed their stories unfit for preaching because they were too scandalous (as if the other Old Testament stories were any different?).
Grandmother Tamar, a Canaanite, abandoned by Judah’s family, who failed to care for her as a widow. She became a prostitute to survive. She hid her identity from her father-in-law Judah, and cunningly exposed him as the father of her child.
Grandmother Rahab, a Canaanite, ran a brothel in Jericho. She harbored the Jewish spies, saving Israel from disaster. How did those spies know about the brothel anyway?
Grandmother Ruth was a Moabite, the tribe that resulted from the incest of Lot. No tribe was considered more scandalous than the Moabites, who were seen as cursed. Ruth, a widower, survived a great famine by winning the affections of Boaz, making her the great grandmother of David.
Grandmother Bathsheba, a Hittite, was the object of King David’s adulterous desires. David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the affair.
I imagine Jesus as an adult, sitting around the campfire with his disciples, retelling these stories that he had heard so often as a boy. I imagine him telling the stories with the same wry humor and deep affection and without the slightest hint of shame. I can hear him ask the disciples with a glint in his eye, “Certainly you’re not ashamed of my grandmas, are you? You wouldn’t forget to include their stories in salvation history, would you?”
The late Robert Farrar Capon said it beautifully, “Shamelessness is the supreme virtue of the Incarnation.” There is no shame in God-none! God occupies our shame shamelessly, without judgment; this changes everything! Think about it, there is not a hint of shame in Jesus for being associated with the most “shameful” elements of humanity. He is completely at ease in being “numbered among the sinners” (Is. 53:12).
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us'” (Matthew 1:23).
That’s it! Emmanuel. God with us in all the waiting rooms of life.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.