The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18-19, 2010
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Dear Friends in Christ,
Marriage customs have varied a good deal over the centuries. Today brides wear white. But in the middle ages, white was the color of death, so a bride would never wear white. In our day, marriages are contracted and finalized all at once. But in earlier times, marriage contracts could precede the actual union by several years. Among kings, it was once common for infants be married by proxy. The actually union would not take place until the children were physically mature, say in their teenage years. Think on this, could you image being married as long as you could remember, but not meeting your spouse for several years? Virginity was once considered so important to the marriage contract that brides often wore chastity belts for a period time before the wedding to make certain the contract could not be broken.
Marriage customs at the time of Christ’s birth were much different than they are today. A boy would apprentice into a trade. By about twelve or fourteen, he’d become a journeymen. At this time he’d begin to salt away his money. He might also during this period contract with another man to marry the man’s daughter. He needed to save enough money to support his wife and acquire a home. He’d have to progress in his trade to the point where he was considered a master craftsman, who could operate his own shop. Most frugal and industrious young men would accomplish all this some time between seventeen and twenty-two years of age. Most girls would be entered into marriage contracts shortly after they were physically mature. This would be somewhere between ten and twelve years of age, depending on the girl. The couple would not start their life together until the man had all things in readiness. So it was typically perhaps two years between betrothal and the actual union.
A side note, here. There is a tradition that Joseph was an older widower. We see this in much of the Christmas artwork. But I believe that there is a problem with such a supposition. First, Scripture tell us this no where. Second, a widower, most likely would enter into a marriage contract and immediately take his bride home. All things would already be in readiness. While this does not prove that Joseph was not an older man and a widower, it suggests that it is not likely. I think we are best to take Joseph to be a younger man, between seventeen and twenty-two as I have noted. Mary, as a typical bride, would be between say thirteen and fifteen years of age.
We also know that morals were a little loose in this time. It was not unheard of for a girl to turn up pregnant. Then, as now, no one suspects a virgin birth. Often if a girl didn’t want to marry daddy’s choice, she snuck off with her choice and let nature take its course. Joseph, very likely, presumed that this had been the case with Mary. He may not have known her particularly well. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “just man”. Today, we might say, he was a nice guy. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to Mary. And he really didn’t want to impose himself upon her, if she genuinely didn’t want him. He would privately void the marriage contract so that she would be free to marry the father of the child. While adultery was, in theory, punishable by stoning, this was rarely done in this period. For one thing, King Herod’s government would look badly upon a mob killing someone, no matter what the reason. Just think of the rigamarole that went along with getting Jesus put to death on Good Friday.
Matthew is writing here what may be termed a rabbinic legal brief. He is writing this account in the way you would present it to a Jewish rabbinic court. He’s trying show how this was a proper marriage and that Jesus did not come into this world by a sinful liaison. Joseph is now approached by an angel. We can, with reasonable safety, presume that this is the angel Gabriel, though it is not specifically stated. The angel explains to Joseph that Mary’s child is the creation of God, it is miracle. This child would be truly be the Son of God - that is the second person of Trinity, come into the flesh of a human being. As John would say, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Joseph then fulfills the promise made in his marriage contract, indeed he would have been obligated to do so. But he does not consummate the union while she is carrying the Christ child.
The question is raised as to whether Mary remained a virgin. In a direct sense the Bible is silent on this. Verse 25, the last verse of our text, when read in the Greek, only speaks to what happened before Christ was born. It does not speak to what happened afterwards. Any position taken on this would be a conclusion drawn from indirect evidence. Many Lutherans, including Dr. Luther and Dr. Walther, taught that Mary remained virgin. My professors at seminary were divided. Yet, the simplest reading of several passages would suggest that Mary did not remain a virgin and that her and Joseph had a normal marriage from that point forward. It is a point of teaching where we must let each conscience decide for themselves, and place no imposition upon others.
The virgin conception and birth of Christ has huge implications for us. In Genesis 5:3 we read that Adam’s son Seth was born in Adam’s image. All human beings are born in the image of Adam. Adam is the father of us all. That image is the imprint of sin. We are born sinners. David says in Psalm 51:5 “...in sin did my mother conceive me...” We call this original sin. It is the sin we inherit from our fathers. But Jesus is the descendent of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3:15. He is not a son of Adam. He is the Son of God. He is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, apart from the will of a man. Because His Father is God, Christ is born holy and sinless. This is why it is crucial to teach that Christ was born of a virgin.
One who is without sin, cannot die. They are eternal. Death comes from sin. The very fact that we are mortal comes from the fact that we were born in sin. Yet, Christ who was sinless died. So what sin caused His mortality? Our sin. He carried our sins upon Him. He became sin for us. Only One who is both holy and divine could do that. He carried that mission with Him from the moment of His conception. Even before Christ was born, Zechariah, His cousin, was singing of how He would save God’s people from their sins. In order to do this He had to be sinless. To be sinless, Christ had to be born of a virgin, apart from the will of a man.
Christmas, its almost here. Just one more week. This baby was born according to the customs of the time. His birth was acceptable according to rabbinic law, as Matthew demonstrates. Matthew also us tells something else. This Child was born of a virgin. He was truly the Son of God. He was the sinless Son of God come to bear our sins all the way to the cross. He came to pay the price of our redemption so that we would be truly children of God. Amen!