The shame of the manger? As we celebrate Christmas 2000 years removed from the event, it may seem odd that there was any shame attached to the birth of Christ. We think of the tremendous privilege given to Joseph and Mary to be chosen to parent Immanuel. And undoubtedly, Joseph and Mary felt that way. But what would those outside of Jesus’ earthly family have made of His birth and how would it have affected the community’s view of Joseph and Mary? Would they have been regarded with admiration or contempt?
We know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed prior to her conception by the Holy Spirit. But betrothal in the Jewish culture in that day was far more serious and binding than is engagement today. The parents of a boy would choose a girl to be engaged to their son. When the couple were of age, there would be a legal agreement before witnesses establishing their engagement, after which they were bound to each other as if married. This engagement lasted approximately one year, during which time the two were considered man and wife. (Thus, Matt 1:19 refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband prior to their actual marriage.) After the engagement year, the legal marriage was performed, and then consummated sexually. So, in the eyes of Mary and Joseph, and their families and community, they were bound together for life, though they had not yet officially married.
The book of Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth primarily from Joseph’s point of view. Joseph had a moral dilemma. Mary had become pregnant and he knew that the baby couldn’t be his since their marriage had not been consummated (1:18). The only rational explanation was that Mary had committed adultery. Such an offense would have warranted Joseph’s public humiliation of Mary in order to save his own reputation.
However, there were two things that prevented him from doing this, according to v19: he was a righteous man, and he did not want to disgrace her. So he decided to divorce her quietly.
This is a significant thing. Joseph’s quiet divorce from Mary would have been eyed suspiciously by their community. His refusal to shame her would have resulted in his own acceptance of some measure of shame. In the eyes of that culture, had he been guilty of nothing, the normal thing to do would have been to make public the sin of Mary, thereby saving his own reputation. His silence would have been received as an admission of guilt.
And at this point in the narrative, already we see in Joseph a man willing to bear the shame of something he did not do, all the while acting with compassion on the one he thought was guilty.
We know from the following verses (20-25) that the angel of the Lord let Joseph in on the truth surrounding Mary’s pregnancy: “for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Obediently, Joseph took Mary as his wife, but did not have relations with her until the Child was born.
But think for a moment about the circumstances. Joseph could tell the story far and wide about the angel coming to him in a dream. He could take an oath before all, staking his reputation on the testimony he received from God that Mary had never committed adultery, but had conceived by the Holy Spirit. He could have sworn up and down that the situation was not at all the way it appeared. He could have revealed that the baby Mary was carrying was Immanuel, promised through the prophet Isaiah. But who would have believed him? Regardless of his story or the sincerity with which he seemed to tell it, Joseph would have been regarded as one of two things: either he himself was a fornicator, who impregnated Mary prior to their marriage, or he knowingly married an adultress. Either way, he was not a man to be admired, but a man to derided and shamed. Joseph was to be regarded as the father of an illegitimate son.
We find evidence that this is the case in John 8:41, where the Jews taunt Jesus, saying, “We were not born of fornication. We have one Father: God.” The implication is obvious. They believed Jesus to be illegitimate, that is, born of fornication. Their claim to have one Father may have been a jab implying that Jesus had two fathers – Joseph and a birth father with whom Mary committed adultery. Remember, John 8 takes place when Jesus is over 30 years old. The cloud of his assumed disgraceful paternity had followed Him all His life.
But one thing is almost certain. At Jesus’ birth, as Joseph looked down on the swaddled baby, God in human flesh sleeping in a trough, the derision of the world over his assumed sin must have been the last thing on his mind. There lay the Hope of all the world, the One who would save His people from their sins. There was no shame. There was no regret. There was only joy.
I would imagine that Joseph gladly endured the whispers and suspecting glances for the rest of his days, glorifying God for the privilege of being chosen to raise a Savior. What a joy to bear the shame of the manger.
You and I have also been given the indescribable gift of the knowledge of the identity of the Messiah. We know the truth about this Child. The question is will we allow those around us to associate us with the offense of His birth, His life, His death, and resurrection?
This Savior said in John 15:18ff, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”
This season of the year affords us the great opportunity to turn conversations about Christmas into conversations about Christ. May the Lord give us hearts like Joseph, willing to associate ourselves with the truth no matter how the culture regards us. Let’s not celebrate His birth without also proclaiming its significance to the lost around us.
Next time: Mary and the shame of the manger.