In 1964 an Italian communist named Pasolini made a film on Jesus entitled The Gospel according to Matthew. There were no added words, just the text of the gospel. The opening of the film portrays very well the episode described in today’s gospel reading. For about 7 or 8 minutes not a word is spoken as we see a strong, wholesome young man walking towards a village. Standing in a doorway in the village is an obviously pregnant girl. We can see at once that the man is Joseph, the village is Nazareth and the girl is Mary. Joseph is striding along, carefree and happy until he catches sight of Mary. He stops transfixed in shock. This is the girl he is going to marry, the girl his parents and her parents have chosen as a suitable wife. And she is pregnant. In a close-up Mary’s eyes seem to say, there is an explanation, I can explain. Joseph waits for no explanation, he turns on his heel and just walks and walks and walks for miles until exhausted, he collapses and falls asleep. In his sleep the explanation is given in a dream. He wakes and slowly walks back to the village. Mary is waiting. Their eyes meet. And you know they both somehow know that nothing wrong or untoward has occurred but that somehow God has intervened.
Realising that God has intervened in Mary’s life is only the first step. He now has to be true to the angel’s message in a society where the law was very strict – if a woman was pregnant the man must cancel the betrothal, and she might even be stoned to death! Joseph is caught between tradition and experience. The Law says he must divorce her. But his dream tells him a different story? What tradition labels a scandal, Joseph is told to call Spirit. Tradition says to divorce her; the dream experience says to take her to his home. It’s quite amazing therefore that Joseph went against the full weight of the Law and took Mary to be his wife. Of course, this foreshadows the tension of all who will hear and be drawn to Jesus. Is he a scandal to be rejected or a manifestation of Spirit to be welcomed? Joseph, poor, young and unlettered though he was, went against tradition and trusted his experience and his dream.
It is only in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is called Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us”. This name contains within it the nucleus of our Christian faith and is at the centre of our Christmas celebration. Thus, God isn’t distant or far off. In Jesus God is now with us and with each one of us. This means that the world is like Mary bearing divinity in her womb. Furthermore, just as Joseph welcomed Mary with reverence because of his presence within her, we too must learn to welcome Jesus, who is God with us, into our hearts in everyday life.
Ordinarily we Christians haven’t been taught to perceive the presence of God’s mystery within ourselves. We are used to thinking of God as up there – perhaps even happy that God is at a distance so that we can get on with our own agendas without an interfering God. Such an attitude, however, is fatal. The whole meaning for our existence is centred around God. To live without God is to endure a truncated humanity in a cold, impersonal world. We were made for God and only God can satisfy the deep longings of our human heart.
Taking a page from Joseph means getting in touch with our experience of God. This is not an easy task as there is an absence of God in modern culture. However, if Jesus is God with us, then we have a concrete, flesh and blood person to follow who will lead us safely into the mystery of God. Jesus tells us in very simple language how we can meet him.
Jesus said: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I am in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20). In the early, nascent church, which suffered so much persecution, it was little meetings of a few disciples coming together that kept the name and presence of Jesus alive.
Jesus said: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35). Malcolm Muggeridge who met and wrote about Mother Teresa of Calcutta once asked her how she persevered in caring for the poorest and most destitute of people? The saint replied: ‘I see Jesus in every person I meet.’
Jesus is also found in the love, goodness and creativity we find in our hearts and so encourages us: ‘Let your light so shine before all, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Mt 5:16).
Finally, Jesus is to be found in prayer for he said: ‘And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith’ (Mt 21:22). The secret of prayer consists, above all, in knowing how to just be, with our eyes closed and in a gentle silence, welcoming with a simple heart that mysterious presence that encourages and sustains us. It’s not about trying to think about it, but just ‘welcoming’ the peace, the life, the love, the forgiveness… that comes to us from the most intimate place within us.
All these quotations are taken from Matthew and show us how the presence of God, God being with us, runs right through his gospel. This is the basic conviction of Christians that God is known and close and seeks to encounter us. Thus, like Joseph, we are challenged to believe that ‘God is with us.’ It is this amazing fact that inspires the whole celebration of Christmas. As a worker priest once said: “We do not have to put God into the world. God is there. But we must preserve his presence and aid our brothers and sisters to find him.”
Sunday, 18 December 2016