Wednesday of Advent III: Matthew 1:18-25
Today is Adam and Eve Day in the Church. They are commemorated this day as saints, those redeemed by God, sinners saved by grace. So perhaps you can celebrate today by hanging an un-bitten apple on your Christmas tree. What Adam and Eve did, Jesus is coming to undo.
They longed for what God had said they could not have (at least, not yet), and they took it for themselves. Thus they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, exiled from the Presence of God, at the tip of a fiery sword. Now that garden which was give to Adam to guard would be guarded by an angel instead. Adam had cowered behind his own wife. He clearly could not be trusted (at least not yet).
As for Eve, the first bride and the first woman to be tempted by outward appearance, she was also cast out. And even though she would remain the mother of all the living, now her motherhood would be tempered with profound pain. It wouldn’t just hurt to bear her children; it would hurt much, much more to watch as one murdered another, and then to be himself cast out. It would hurt to watch heart break after heartbreak, and be able to do nothing to stop it (at least not yet).
It is into this scene of disappointments and hurts and curses that the first good news is spoken. God promises even as he curses—indeed our God promises through his curses. Eve’s pain at childbirth, and her greater pain in waiting, will be the very means of her salvation. The hated serpent who deceived her and overcame her (as her husband looked benignly on), his head would be crushed by the heel of her Son. Her cry for help, echoing through the ages, would finally find the ear of God.
The Virgin Mary is the new Eve, the woman who at last had a child, the Lord (Genesis 4)—She is the one to whom angels speak without flaming swords, to whom angels proclaim again the good news. But the pain promised Eve is not spared for Mary. Her heart would be pierced, and her family would be broken.
But this child, her child, the Lord, is the subject of all the law and the prophets: He will crush satan’s head, he will forgive his murderous brothers, he will lead his people out of slavery, he will lead them through water into their inheritance, he will slay the great Goliath, and he will build for them a cosmic temple of living stones.
He himself will be called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1); he himself will be Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14); he will come again out of the ground like a sprout from a stump (Isaiah 11:1), in order to comfort Rachel and restore to her every last one of her children (Jeremiah 31:15).
And in all of this, Mary will have a husband better than Adam. She will have Joseph—a just man, unwilling to disgrace her who seems to have disgraced him, unwilling to play Adam’s blame game. And then, listening to the word of God, and accepting his sacred charge, he will guard her, and know her not (at the very least, until the Holy Child is born).
All of these are godly things, and hard things to do. Even if Joseph himself had perfect faith, and could see each prophesy with perfect clarity (even if he himself was empty of doubt), how do you explain your pregnant fiancé to your friends and family by telling them it is of the Holy Spirit, or how do you explain your decision to up and flee to Egypt (a hostile foreign power) on the basis of a dream (and messages from angels)?
Joseph is an anti-Adam. He endures where Adam fell short. He refused to put his wife to any shame, even if she had deserved it. He is a model sacrificial husband and model adoptive father. But the obvious must again be stated: He knew her not. The Child is not his.
There are various words for sex in the Bible. God commands, “Be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1).” Adam knew Eve (Genesis 4). Jacob lies with Leah (Genesis 30). Abram goes into Hagar to conceive Ishmael (Genesis 16).
But it is interesting: there are important moments of conception in the Bible when none of this normal sexual language is used. When God opens Sarah’s barren womb and Isaac is conceived, the child of God’s promise, there is no mention of Abraham knowing, lying with, or going into Sarah.
The same is true when God opens the barren wombs of Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel (Genesis 25, 29, 30). There is no mention of Isaac or Jacob doing anything. We assume, of course, that they did. But in these blessed cases, the Bible wants to emphasize, not the natural actions of men, but the divine work of God. (Cf. Peter Leithart, “Sex in Genesis”)
In the case of Joseph, however, Scripture is clear: Joseph knew her not. Joseph is a saint, a faithful man, but the story is not about his action. For all his piety and righteousness, the story of Christmas turns upon what Joseph did not do. The child is not his.
The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and she has a child, the Lord. And the irony is that this Child, even as he held him in his arms, is Joseph’s guardian (Cf. Rev. David Petersen, Sermon at Kramer Chapel on March 19, 2009). He in that very moment was holding Joseph, protecting Joseph, forgiving and saving and redeeming Joseph. Jesus goes to his cross for Joseph, and for Adam, and Eve and all the Adams and Eves, living and dead—for you, in your doubts, your cowardice, your unfaithfulness.
In this season, with Christmas coming, we sit with all the prophets and faithful men and women, waiting for a child. All those at least not yets from Genesis are here at last. Here we draw near to the Presence of God in his garden again. Here we serve God again, as God again invests man with the duties Adam lost: to be in his presence, to watch and pray. And here we see Eve’s tears finally wiped away, and Mary’s pierce heard mended with the medicine of immortality: the body and blood of the Lord—who at last is coming to un-bite the apple, undo the Sin of Adam—and to undo the sin of us all.