Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Were Joseph and Mary in a relationship?

a meditation in preparation for Christmas

Since the 1960s English-speaking westerners have increasingly used the word “relationship” so that it is now – along with the verb “to feel” – one of the most used words in ordinary discourse and writing, including religious talk.

Any coming together, or being together, for a long or short time of persons, animals, companies, countries and organizations is called “a relationship.” When two persons are living together, engaged to be married, or actually married, they are said to be in a “relationship”. In fact the marriage of two persons, male and female, or a “committed partnership” of two persons, male and male (or female and female) is called “a relationship.” And to top it all, preachers of both liberal and conservative persuasions call upon people to enter into a “relationship with God”, as something that can be instantly and easily entered into.

One thing about a modern “relationship” is that it is freely entered into and it can be freely dissolved by one party alone or by joint agreement of all parties involved. Thus “relationship” is a word that particularly fits well into modern western culture where individual rights and freedom are so much prized and people are on the move.

So were Mary and Joseph in a “relationship”? No! No! and No!

We first hear of them as being betrothed -- “When his [Jesus] mother was betrothed to Joseph…” (Matthew 1:18). Betrothal was a serious and lasting commitment. It bound the man and woman together in a holy commitment and consecration as they waited to be formally married and consummate their union. Betrothal was the first part of a relation of order proceeding from God’s creation of male and female and from the revealed Law of God (the Law given to Moses and written in the Torah) concerning human relations. The second part of this holy relation was holy matrimony. God’ will is that a man and woman be united in marriage and become as one flesh and remain so until the death of one of them. [Divorce was actually allowed in the Law of Moses but as a concession to human weakness and sinfulness and not commended as being the perfect will of God.]

A permanent union of a man and woman in matrimony is not therefore a relationship which either party can at any time dissolve. It is a relation of order that once entered into is intended by God’s appointment and will to be permanent – “until death us do part.” By it relatives are gained and through procreation more relatives are produced!

When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he thought that she had “known” another man and that according to the law of Moses he was required to use the provisions of that law to break his betrothal to her and set her aside. Yet the angel of the Lord intervened and told Joseph of the true origins of Mary’s baby and commanded Joseph to proceed with their marriage and accept that unique and precious baby as his own, so that Jesus was born “ a son of David”, like his adopted father. Happily Joseph, being a just and devout man, did as the angel commanded him.

So what could have been an intended permanent union, which had to be dissolved because of a major impediment, actually proceeded in God’s providence to be a permanent union, a relation of order within God’s creation and grace. By this union came salvation and joy to the world!

Had their coming together merely been a modern “relationship” then there would have been no “Christmas Story” and God’s plans for the redemption of the world would have been thwarted!

Likewise, when a sinful human being is regenerated (born from above), concerted and baptized in the Triune Name to become a disciple of Jesus, he enters not into a relationship that is dissolvable for this or that reason, but into a permanent relation of friendship, peace and union with God, a relation of order wherein he is adopted as a child of God!

A true “relationship” with God is the experience of a relation of order (wherein a person is an adopted child of God) and while the experience changes as human feelings change the relation of order by God’s will is permanent! “O Love that wilt not let me go…”

The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon Advent IV, 2004 December 21.

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