Mrs. A is the history teacher extraordinaire at our school, and last Friday, she had lunch with my daughter and her homeschool cohorts to discuss the six C's of history: change over time, causality, context, complexity, contingency, and connection. To think like a historian, you need to look for these things in the stories you study.
This conversation came back again in church yesterday as we talked about Joseph.
See, as much hullabaloo as Christmas gets, we need to remember that it is the lesser of the two primary Christian holidays. The Christmas story is only the prelude to the real story -- the one we celebrate on Easter. But, of course, Easter wouldn't have happened without Christmas. Contingency.
And our view of the Christmas story is pretty sentimentalized. As Aaron, our Sunday School teacher pointed out, while Luke's presentation of the story could be almost lullaby-ish (and that's the one you hear the most), Matthew's brings out the brutality of the age. Herod the king was a genuine lunatic; that slaughter of hundreds of babies was bloody and unspeakable. Picture this happening in a middle eastern country today and the international outcry it would cause. But back then, the king was the king, and he did what he wanted. Change over time.
Joseph must have been a pretty resourceful man to pick up his wife and newborn at the drop of a hat, in response to a warning in a dream, and move them to Egypt (the closest place out of Herod's jurisdiction) and just live there for a couple years. Finding a way to make a living and a place to live among a people of a different language, culture, and religion. We have romantic images in our mind of them camping out or something down there for a couple weeks . . . no, it was years. Herod died and his son took over. They had started a new life. And then they picked up and came home again at another angel's instructions in a dream. Causality . . . complexity . . . and prophetic fulfillment thrown in there, to boot.
But a certain detail of the story stuck out to me yesterday. When Mary was found to be pregnant, this was scandalous. Actually, scandal is hardly the word for it. Extramarital sex is so commonplace anymore, a single woman getting pregnant is hardly news these days, unfortunately. But the Jewish law said that Mary could be stoned to death. Joseph had every right to call her out and have her executed. Context.
But he didn't. Even before the angel came to fill him in on what was going on with this baby, he had already made the decision to "put her away quietly." Just end the relationship. No public condemnation. Leaving her alone with a baby may sound cold-hearted to the modern ear, but folks, this was a tremendous act of mercy on his part. More context.
Fascinating to think: the whole story could have ended right there. She's my betrothed -- she's pregnant -- it's not mine -- hand her over to the authorities for punishment, which was death. Had that happened, of course, God would have found another way to save the world, but He chose these people for this task because he knew that wouldn't happen. He knew Joseph. He knew he was merciful. He knew he would hear God's voice and obey. And the Christmas story -- and therefore the Easter story -- depended on Joseph's mercy and obedience.
So much depends on mercy and obedience. So much that we are not even the least bit aware of. This small act of mercy . . . this seemingly insignificant act of obedience . . . could have monumental effects on your life, other lives, society, even history. I must never forget to be merciful and to obey.
And there, my friends, is connection.