Take Joseph. His wedding plans have just crashed; Mary, he has learned, is pregnant. We know that Joseph is full of anxiety, despite his plan to put Mary away quietly, because as he sleeps, an angel in a dream tells him, Dont be afraid.
The admonition not to give in to fear is an important sign of divine authenticity. Dreams and supernatural experiences must be tested by ones faith. Faith affirms, for example, that God lights up darkness, binds up wounds, feeds the hungry, frees captives and gathers people together. God is in the business of casting out fear, not stirring it up. Therefore, Joseph can trust an angel who says, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
There is more. Gods Spirit has come upon Mary and she has conceived the child, the angel saysstartlingly mysterious information that forces Joseph to reinterpret his situation. When the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, which means deliverer, savior, helper, Joseph, a devout Jew, can begin to make the messianic connection. The child is also known as Emmanuel (God is with us). A miraculous conception gives Joseph (and generations of readers of Matthews Gospel) an understanding that Jesus is no ordinary child, but Gods long-awaited one. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew does everything he can to reveal Jesus full identity as the Messiah. It is his primary purpose in writing.
We see other signs of divine authenticity in this birth story. Josephs deepened understanding of who Jesus is informs his actions, not just his understanding. Rather than separating from Mary as he had planned, Joseph weds her and serves as a father to Jesus. And as Joseph understands that Gods Spirit is with him and his betrothed, he sees Marys identity shift before him; then his own identity changes.
What does Matthews story mean for us? If we believe the promised one of God is among us, how does that affect any fears we may have this Christmas? Do we experience Gods Spirit present with us? Such questions may merit a few moments of Advent reflection. At issue is learning to trust Gods Spirit, which transcends fear.
Matthew also shows what happens when fear gets the better of someone. Take King Herod. When Magi from the East arrive at his court and ask for the king of the Jews, Herod takes note. He is frightened, threatened by an infant-king whose birth has summoned astrologers. Fear motivates Herod to conspire to kill the babe. When his plot fails, Herod, enraged and even more fearful, orders the slaughter of every newborn male in his realm. Fear incites irrational violenceso many innocent deaths to eliminate a single competitor.
The murder of the innocents serves a narrative function as well, foreshadowing Jesus own fate. The Magis reference to Jesus as king of the Jews is another foreshadowing. We hear it again in Matthew 27, when an adult Jesus on trial for his life stands before Pilate. The child the wise men seek will become that prisoner.
Skillfully, Matthew brings his readers full circle. At every turn fear seems reasonable enough, and the plot is hair-raising. One would hope that a boy saved by his familys flight into Egypt might withstand a trial for blasphemy, but flogging and a public execution are his lot. Only after that is fear shown to be hollow.
A few days after his crucifixion, Jesus appears to several women gathered at his tomb. To them he says exactly what the angel told Joseph, Do not be afraid. In coming back to his opening dialogue, Matthew is showing his readers (and us) that this Jesus, whom God has just raised up from the dead, is the crucified rabbi; the dynamic preacher, teacher and healer so many had followed; the one whose coming had been anticipated by the Jews for centuries. Their hopes were not misplaced: he is the child Joseph named deliverer and whose birth the heavens pointed out with a star. This is the infant who was feared by a king, worshiped by Magi and reared by a humble, faith-filled man and woman. In the final words of his Gospel, Matthew harks back to Emmanuel (God with us), who as the risen one now tells his disciples, I am with you always, to the end of the age.