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Advent Conspiracy: celebrating Christmas humbly

Sunday saw us continue in our Advent Conspiracy, thinking about how we might prepare for Christmas by learning to live more humbly.

Our reading was Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Christ, and I chose it because there are five names in there that really interest me. Tamar. Rahab. Ruth. Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah). Mary. The only women in a long long list of men. The foremothers of Christ. You might be wondering what they have to do with our theme of humility, but I promise we will get there. First though, let us remind ourselves of their stories.

Tamar was married to one of Judah’s sons, but he was struck down by God for his wickedness before they had a child. In accordance with the law, she married one of his brothers, but he decided he didn’t want to give her a child who would legally be his late brother’s heir, so he made sure that couldn’t happen. This displeased God, and so he too was struck down. Judah seems to have decided that Tamar was the real problem, some kind of a curse, and refused to give her another son in marriage. This left her incredibly vulnerable as a childless widow in a society where family was the primary support network. And so she disguised herself as a prostitute and waited for Judah, who was happy enough to trade her services for his staff and seal. When she became pregnant, Judah was all set to have her killed, but then she produced the staff and seal and said they belonged to the man who had got her pregnant. Judah declared her more righteous than he and released her from her sentence.

Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho. She hid the spies sent by Joshua to scope out the city, declaring that she recognised the land had been given to them by God, and asking for protection for her family in return for the protection she had given the spies. This was granted and they were spared. Rabbinic tradition acknowledges her as one of the most beautiful women ever to have lived, but also as a worthy convert to Judaism and an advocate for all nations.

Ruth was a Moabite woman married to an Israelite whose family had left their homeland because of a famine. When all the men of the family died, Ruth remained loyal to her mother in law Naomi, and left for Israel with her. She worked hard in the fields to provide for her and Naomi, and won the respect of Boaz, who was a member of her late husband’s family and so a kinsman redeemer, meaning he could marry her in order to keep the family line going. Under Naomi’s instructions she approached Boaz as he slept on the threshing floor, and he in turn approached the nearer kinsman redeemer who agreed that Boaz would marry her. Together they formed a new and perhaps unusual family unit, with the women of the town acknowledging the child as Naomi’s, suggesting Ruth’s loyalty did not wane once she was secure.

Bathsheba is a woman of some infamy, perhaps unfairly. King David saw her bathing and desired her, but while she is often painted as a temptress, the truth is that he was the king, and so if he wanted her she had no say. We do not know that this was what she planned or even wanted. When she then fell pregnant, David attempted to cover up his indiscretion by recalling her husband from the army so that it would seem he was the father, but when that didn’t work he put him on the front line of battle so that he would be killed, allowing David to take Bathsheba as his wife. The womanist theologian Wil Gafney says that in her prophetic imagination, Bathsheba held her head high when she walked around the palace, but David could not meet her eyes.

Mary was a young woman betrothed to be married, when an angel came and told her that she was to bear a child who would be called Jesus because he would save his people. As we learnt a few weeks ago, a woman found to have had relations with another man while betrothed to be married could be stoned, and while we know that was not what had happened, how many would have believed her? She was made incredibly vulnerable, and yet Luke is very clear that she consented to her part in God’s plan. I don’t think we make enough of her agency, but it is so important.

Why are these women alone included in the genealogy of Christ? Genealogies elsewhere in the Bible list only the names of the fathers, so it is the inclusion of these mothers, rather than the exclusion of others, that is significant. The truth is that there probably weren’t many more women that could have been included, because in all likelihood their names had already been lost to history, but Matthew could have recorded Sarah or Rebekah or Leah, and yet he did not.

I think the answer perhaps lies in what these five have in common. They were all women who found themselves on the very margins of society. Foreigners. Childless widows. Women guilty or accused of promiscuous behaviour. In the world’s eyes these women were as lowly as could be.

But don’t feel too sorry for them, because these women deserve more of our admiration than our pity. They were survivors, women of great dignity and strength. They held powerful men to account, they lived by love and loyalty, they took great risks for their faith. In God’s eyes they were glorious.

This is where I want us to start thinking about humility, because I think these women offer us a new understanding of it. They knew what they were in the world’s eyes, but they also knew what they were in God’s eyes. And so they did not live with a pride that sought to raise themselves up or bring others down, but they did live with a grace that demanded they be treated with respect. They were were not arrogant, but they were confident. They did not seek glory, but they found it anyway.

We often think of humility as lowering ourselves or making ourselves less, but I’m not sure that is really what God asks of us. We are told not to hide light under a bowl, and Jesus straightened those who had been bowed down and returned those who had been outcast to society. God makes us bigger and brighter not smaller and duller.

As Nelson Mandela put it, “You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world...We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us...And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.”

Humility is not about self-abasement but about living with a true sense of our own self so that we can live in right relationship with others, not pushing ourselves above them but not pushing ourselves below them either, serving and empowering while allowing ourselves to be served and empowered in turn. As the Graham Kendrick song has it, meekness does not rule out majesty, and true humility must recognise our potential as well as our limits, our strengths and weaknesses.

I think we could find examples of this kind of humility in the lives of all the women whose stories we have heard today, but I want to think particularly of Mary, who didn’t follow her encounter with the angel by hiding away for nine months, but took the risk of visiting her cousin Elizabeth, to whom she sang words of great praise and prophecy. The Magnificat is the song of woman who knew she was a servant but also knew she was blessed, not only with the child growing within her but also with a vision for what that child would accomplish, and who was unashamed to own her part in that, however it must have appeared to others. If we humble ourselves in obedience to God, recognising that we too are blessed servants, we may find our own place and our own voice in the story God is telling.

Here I want to take a bit of a turn. When we speak of Christ we sometimes talk about holiness, but the truth is that Jesus was born into a holy mess. He was born into a family full of pain and grief and betrayal and love and hope and joy. But then isn’t that just what life is? Jesus humbling himself meant being part of the holy mess that is humanity, accepting and even embracing all that it is to be human, while showing us the best of that can look like.

We see this holy mess throughout Jesus’ life. As if submitting to the trauma of birth and the varied indignities of bodily existence were not enough, he started life in a feeding trough and then in exile, and he was dismissed because of his birthplace and his family, and he suffered the humiliation not only of crucifixion but of public mockery. And yet he was in some indescribable way still God, and so he also spoke with authority, and he drew thousands to hear him speak, and he did the unthinkable and the unimaginable.

We also see these contradictions in his foremothers. Tamar put herself beyond acceptable society but was called righteous. Rahab’s nationality and profession made her the lowest of the low but she is praised in Hebrews as an example of faith. Ruth went to a land where she knew she may be treated as a despised foreigner but her loyalty won her respect and love. Bathsheba was put in an impossible position but I like to think she did walk the palace corridors with her head held high. Mary obediently gave her consent and then responded not with meekness but with words of great power.

That Jesus should come from and live in such holy mess is no accident. In a sense, it couldn’t have been any different. There is no family tree that doesn’t have its fair share of messiness. But the fact that Matthew felt compelled to highlight these women, whose stories are only known because they are so messy, and the fact that the gospel writers show so much of the messiness of Jesus’ own existence, says to me that God was not ashamed of it. He wants to transform our mess, but he does so by entering into it and sanctifying it, not by obliterating or denying it.

So how do we live in our own holy mess? We start by owning it, whether it is a mess we have inherited or one we have created. We grieve it where it is beyond our control, remembering that lament is part of the language of scripture. We repent it where it is something that is in our power, trusting that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible.

And we live knowing what we are in the eyes of the world but act knowing who we are in the eyes of God. We keep our heads up and our hearts open, seeking righteousness and living by love and speaking words of praise and prophecy, as Jesus and his foremothers did before us.

So let us be lowly but let us also be glorious, because Christ came not to condemn us but to raise us. Let us live with a humility which reveals the truth about ourselves, because for all its flaws it will be a thing of beauty. And let us recognise the holiness of our holy mess.

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