There is an old saying that references the “smells and the bells” as essential components of the act of worship, particularly the celebration of the Eucharist. It is a reference much more applicable to the liturgical traditions that are for the most part long past, but it nonetheless can remind us that when we enter into worship we entering into an alternate reality, a spiritual experience if you will. One part of that experience is of course the scriptural stories that we often share, especially those stories that have mythological components that people who prefer the unvarnished application of the scientific method to the telling would find unacceptable. Today’s story is one such example since it speaks to us of a mysterious pregnancy, the visit of an angel, and the power of dreams. Not one helpful reference to data or reliable application of proven scientific principles can be discovered.
Of course, and this may not be at all helpful for some people, the traditional formulation for speaking about religious mystery is usually within the context of mythological story telling. It is the chosen formulation because what is important about the religious story is not so much the details of the story but rather the truth of what the story teaches. This is most certainly not the case in the application of the scientific method where the details are all important. For example, in this morning’s gospel what is important about the story is that it tells us that the birth of Jesus was a specific manifestation of the power of God, an intervention into human history. That being the case the manifestation of God’s power nonetheless became dependent on the cooperation of real people who are invited to cooperate in the mystery, in this instance Joseph and Mary.
We could and often do benefit from the telling of the story. Since we are also anticipating the completion of the story in just a few days when we celebrate Christmas, we are preparing ourselves for what is not only a religious feast of great importance but also a family celebration that extends across our entire culture, embracing both believers and non-believers alike. At the same time however there is something in the details of the story that can actually enhance our celebration if we take time to pay attention and to contemplate the reality.
It is not just a story, this story of Mary and Joseph. It is not just religious mythology but it also captures something of the reality of two real people and their encounter with the sacred. We do not want the smells and the bells to obscure this reality.
Mary, as the story unfolds, discovers that she is pregnant. We do not know how she experienced this reality or what thoughts and feelings she might have experienced, but we do know that this experience was explained to her as an act of the “spirit of God.” She turns to Joseph, the man to whom she has been betrothed and it does not turn out well, at least initially. Joseph, although he is a righteous man, decides that he will divorce her. In the culture and in society in which Mary lives that is a death sentence, either literally for example being stoned to death, or figuratively as she will be turned-out in the streets and abandoned by friends and family. It is his intent to divorce her quietly, thus perhaps avoiding some of the shame but not all of it, when he dramatically changes his mind because of the intervention of an angel. This intervention is life-changing for both Joseph and Mary. They begin together a journey that neither of them anticipated but which now becomes their shared experience. Needless to say it is not just a marriage and the building of a family but, because of the intervention of angels, is also a spiritual pilgrimage that will stretch and mold them in ways that no one could imagine or even comprehend.
There is a spiritual truth in this detail for each of us that goes beyond the original intent of the mythological retelling of the original story. The spiritual truth it demonstrates is that when two people, regardless of circumstances and the details of how they arrived at a given point, nevertheless determine it is important and necessary for them to share their lives together. In a very real sense their story becomes one and in the unity there is both joy and sorrow, mystery and clarity, confusion and purpose but it all seems to make some kind of sense because it is anchored in relationship. There may not be angels in our personal relationship stories but there are certainly men and women who play significant roles for us who are mentors, friends, and companions with us on the journey and they are often for us moments of grace and blessing.
Just because we have heard a mythological story today does not mean what we have listened to is a work of fiction. It is most certainly not fiction but is rather one way to tell us something important about ourselves, the formation of our families and our relationships, and to introduce to us the idea that somehow, and in some unexplained manner, the spirit of God is very much present to us as we continue on our journey. Ultimately it is a life journey, and as such it is also a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage of faith and love.
Think of all of this the next time you look at the plaster statutes of Mary and Joseph in the cribs and managers which will soon join the smells and the bells of our shared worship and Eucharist. Today Mary and Joseph are symbols of something more, something greater than ourselves, but a long time ago they were just two scared people in love, trying to figure out what everything might mean, all the while living in fearful anticipation of the birth of their son whom they knew, as all parents intuitively understand, will change their lives forever.