I decided to read through the Gospel of Matthew this week and it's been refreshing to open my Bible again after a too long hiatus. Reading the story of Jesus' birth struck me in a slightly different light than it has before now that I'm a father. First and foremost, it struck me as a particularly brutal and messy thing for an omnipotent God to go through. Having experienced birth first hand I can tell you that birth is easily the bloodiest and goriest thing I've ever experienced.
Next, the clash of culture usually takes my attention, "When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly." (Matthew 1:18b-19) To my western sensibilities that seems backward, wouldn't it shame her more not to marry her? No. Not in the culture of the time. At that time, sex out of wedlock could be a capital offense and obviously Mary had had to have sex outside of wedlock to be pregnant, at least as far as Joseph was concerned. But, rather than prosecute her openly for this betrayal, Joseph was going to call the thing off and let it just be a scandal instead.
However, God intervenes and let's Joseph know that she's not betrayed him, "'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'" (v. 20) God sent and angel to let him know that he would have the honor of partaking in this. I don't know how the culture then would have interpreted him continuing to marry her, but I know in my culture (i.e., as Midwestern, conservative evangelical American) it would be an admission that he'd slept with her and the child was his. In a sense, he'd be assuming guilt that wasn't his. Whether that was true in his culture or not, but since it would have been the act of a "just man" to divorce her I have to imagine that would be at least partially true.
The final part of this pericope is one that always causes a little discord within me. Joseph "took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus." (vv. 24b-25) Americans have come to take sex for granted. It's treated as just another bodily function, but one that's particularly enjoyable. This is not my view of intercourse and would not have been for Joseph and Mary. If sex is taken in the light the Bible describes it, sex and marriage are the same thing. The "act of marriage" is even a polite euphemism used in some circles (I'm not quite that much of a fuddy duddy). But this means that Joseph and Mary were married by oath, but not by deed until after Jesus was born.
The idea that God would incarnate as a man can be difficult to swallow, even for a Christian whose faith is provided and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. Having witnessed the birth process first hand, it seems appalling, irreverent, horrifying, and more than a little comical that God would choose that messy vehicle to bring his plan to existence. Jesus held the whole nature of God within himself and yet he had to suckle, sleep, poop, and pee like any other baby. On the other hand, who can compare with a God who can simultaneously sustain and control the entire universe and yet humiliate himself to be born as a mere human. The idea fills me with dread when I think about how highly I think of myself and what things I am not willing to do that would be humiliating, but would help others.