While Mary and Joseph bump along the Bethlehem Road on donkey back, and settle into temporary accommodation in the downstairs room where the feed’s stored and the domestic animals come for milking, do you ever wonder where Joseph’s other children are?
In all the dramatis personae of the nativity scene, with angels and shepherds and wise ones from afar, no-one mentions the half-brothers and sisters in Nazareth.
While the inn-keeper’s wife and her sisters and the midwife bustle around and lay clean sheets on the straw mattress and tell Joseph to go boil some water, and call their daughters to bring fortified wine and vinegar-water and a clean pottery bowl for the afterbirth; while the men pace the market, chewing dates and offering Joseph a swig from a wineskin they think’s a secret from their wives, and brag about their sons and their prowess; does Joseph remind them he’s already a father? That this is not his first time pacing and drinking and joking with brothers-in-law and cousins?
Does he hope, especially here, in his hometown, the city of his ancestor David—with an intensity that shames him, that he’d never even hint at to Mary—that he’s seen as man enough to father a son?
When Joseph overhears the panting and straining, when Mary’s sobs and groans are almost more than he can bear, does he think of that other woman, the mother of children whose births he wasn’t there for?
And when tears well in his eyes at the lusty cry of his tiny son, is he remembering and perhaps still grieving for his first wife, for the children re-housed with relatives, missing their mother, missing their father more because they see him from time to time? Does he worry that the boys won’t get on, that this newest one—whose conception and paternity is gossiped about by the fostering aunts—might not be welcomed by his first family?
And once they’re back in Nazareth, as the young Mary watches her boy growing in wisdom and stature, does she strive, with a perception beyond her years, to involve them in the new family she and Joseph are forming, to nurture their inquisitive interest in their half-brother, to make them feel as loved and as special as he is?
Does Mary foresee that his story, his purpose, will be carried into the future by his half-brothers, by Joseph’s other sons?
Some liturgical years, St Andrew’s Day coincides with the first Sunday in Advent, and we are reminded of Andrew, the quiet disciple, the younger brother overshadowed by boisterous Simon Peter.
Andrew was an observer, a doer. When asked where he lived, his reply was a simple, “Come and see.”
Of all Jesus’ followers, Andrew understood manaakitanga, welcome, sharing. His attitude was not, What do you believe, whose side are you on, but Make yourself at home. All are welcome here.
We try to live that way, too—even if it means being at odds with some of our church family, even if it means being prepared to defy some decisions of our national organisation.
Sometimes, Jesus’ family thought he was going too far. His mother and brothers tried to get him to tone it down, keep the discussion pleasant and not disturb the peace. They said, “Are you out of your mind? Come home, and calm down a bit.”
And his response? “A prophet’s not respected in his own home!” With even more hyperbole, “You have to hate your parents and desert your family to follow me!”
Shocking, isn’t it? Like saying the rich won’t get into heaven, or don’t waste your pearls of wisdom on these swine. Like turning the tables in the temple and shouting, “You’ve made the economy more important than human lives!”
It’s not comfortable, looking forward from the Bethlehem manger to the streets of Jerusalem, the shores of Galilee, the pubs and whorehouses of Nazareth, the badlands of Samaria. Yet, that’s where Jesus found his friends and followers, and in a few years’ time, that’s where we’ll find him.
But, for now, let the future be as it will, and let’s focus once more on the family at the heart of our story. And look, we’re not alone! Others feel as we do, accepting the challenge to “Come and see”.
As we gather around the child of hope, we’re joined by a heavenly host. The kindom of heaven gathers with us—
But where are the others? The brothers and sisters, the half-brothers and step-sisters, the broken relations, torn-apart siblings, the unblended families, the reconstituted ones. All the children with bruises on their bodies; fathers with bruises on their psyches; mothers with bruises on their hearts.
Here they are! The jailbird cousin and the crazy aunt. The depressed daughter who’s dragged herself out; the edge-of-hysteria, manic sister; the autistic grandson behind a haybale, rocking; the transgendered, the cis-gendered, the queer and the straight, the birth children and adopted children and fostered children; these fragile families of blood and of choice.
All the whānau of Jesus: gathered to celebrate heaven on earth, in the promise of a child.
And in the lower room, with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, are brothers Simon and Jude, Joses and James, and the unnamed sisters. There’s Anne and Joachim, and Joseph’s misidentified parents; Elizabeth, Zacharias and cousin John; the whole extended, overwhelmed and slowly healing family of God.
And here we are, in our tattered rags and party clothes. Whispering or shouting: Love is here! In our land, our city, our home. The news—too good not to share—shines in our eyes: every life is precious, every gift has worth, every day, we can give birth to hope.
Come, says Andrew. Come and see. Come, says Jesus, come follow me—and year after year, this ordinary miracle draws us together, midwives of change, guests at the feast. This is our story: familiar, sometimes taken for granted, yet each year resounding new.
So, for the two thousand and umpteenth time: Shalom! Happy Christmas! Today and every day until we meet again around the manger: Peace be with you! Joy to the world! Love is born again.