12.18.22, Matthew 1:18-25 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
I cherish holiday traditions. For as long as I can remember, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has been one of these cherished traditions. One that Phil and I still keep to this day. In fact, we watched it last week. I always feel for this family obsessively driven by their dad, Clark Griswald, to have a picture perfect family Christmas. From the idyllic Christmas tree they hike through deep snow and out to the woods to find, only to realize they forgot a saw and the kids are practically frozen. To the banquet table of a Christmas dinner consisting of this Better Homes worthy spread, only to find the turkey is most likely the world’s most overdone turkey and is so dry they can barely chew what’s left of it.
At every turn as Clark tries to have the “perfect” holiday, chaos ensues. It never lives up to the expectations he has. Of course it is funny because of the ways the actors bring it to life, but is also funny because it is relatable! Have you ever had a moment that you worked hard for and planned for to bring about that Rockwellian Christmas and had it totally blow up in your face? I can think of MANY moments like this over the years.
One year my mom got REALLY into setting up one of those Christmas villages. It seemed like every couple of days the village grew. It grew from the mantle, to the hutch, she’d go back to the store and it would grow some more. This village became so expensive she began to build a multi level snow covered scene complete with little people sledding down an actual hill… on the kitchen table. By Christmas Eve dinner when we gathered around to eat, there was nowhere to sit at the table as the village had become a proper township. My mom looked at us holding our plates, laughed, and said…”I guess we will stand and eat.” So we did. We stood there admiring her handy work and listened to her tell us about every fine detail. It was hilarious! And it somehow brought us closer together, and is a rather beloved memory. It wasn’t what my mom had planned or worked for for our family Christmas. Yet, when our ideals of what should be were shaken up, we let go of perfection and we took another way, perhaps messier, chaotic, not “normal”, maybe even outside of the standards of “tradition”, we were brought together as a family in a different way.
While not in a Clark Griswold or ever expanding Christmas village way, Matthew wastes no time in reminding us that this Gospel carries the theme of subverting traditional family values. One of the ways this Gospel does this is through Joseph. His family is not how it should be or what he expected, yet, through literal divine intervention Joseph is inspired to be part of co-creating a new understanding of family as he lets go of those expectations of perfection.
In this passage when he learns about Mary being pregnant he is named as righteous in the way he plans to dismiss her. Jewish scholars note that here we are being reminded that, “Righteousness was linked to justice, ethics, and Torah observance” (JANT, 4). His intention is to keep her from harm while still breaking it off. You see he knew that Mary could have been stoned to death for being pregnant when not married. And I would imagine he might have been ashamed or hurt. This was not how it is supposed to go! And still, he is set on living in this righteousness even in calling things off.
Then the angel comes to him in what must have been a very vivid dream. In this moment, “Joseph… becomes the conduit of divine communication and the model of one who acts righteously”… though not by the standards of the status quo (TBC, 297). Joseph’s willingness to live God’s way and not the way of the world is part of God’s inbreaking in the world. I wonder how he felt about all of this as he too experienced the weight of occupation by an oppressive empire? On receiving the news from the angel and hearing what the child should be called, I feel my own heart of resistance stir at the thought of Joseph waiting for the child that will be “God with us” as he watches the empire rage around him. Could this have been part of his drive to help bring the Messiah into the world?
Joseph’s righteousness, that connection to justice and ethics helped him to say yes to this unimagined family. His chosen family. Chosen family is something that many of us connect with. I know I do. Our chosen family, those we say yes to who we might not have ever imagined, and yet can’t imagine life without are the ones God has invited us to co-create family with. Not a “traditional” family we use to see in holiday cards and advertisements, but a family that actually more closely reflects the ways in which Matthew subvets traditional ideas of what family should be.
It is also his righteousness that allows him to be the earthly father of Jesus in substantial ways. He is the protector of the God Bearer, and then of the Christ child. I often think about the sacrifice Mary made, but I rarely give thought to the sacrifice Joseph made. He turned his life upside down for this chosen family, now in this moment, and later in taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt to keep Jesus safe from the terror of the king (WBC, 468), It is through this example of Joseph that we are being called to let go of how we think it should be, and open our hearts to God’s inbreaking in ways we could have never dreamt of on our own.
By the end of the holiday classic Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold and family are standing together, arms wrapped around each other and looking at the Christmas sky. While the scene is a bit silly, it also conveys those very feelings of love, joy, peace, hope, and gratitude that he was striving for in the “perfect family Christmas”. When I watched this movie this year it brought me closer to Joseph. This man who had done what he was “supposed to” and was reminded that, “God’s work often upsets the comfortable social expectations and conventions” (FOTW, 92).
Part of the invitation seems to me to be to let go of the world’s ideas of perfection and claim anew that the only perfection in this world rests in God and God’s realm breaking into the world. God doesn’t play by our human perfection standards… in fact God does the opposite… God comes in unconventional ways. God comes through an unwed family into the mess of a manger and first appears to the lowest of society. That is our God. How is God calling you to let go of perfection and to say yes to co-creating something that you can’t even imagine in your own humanity? What might you let go this holiday season so that you may be more present to God breaking into the world, and perhaps maybe even be part of it?