Courage is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to thinking about Christmas. It is such a feel good time of year, along with a sense of unreality compared to the rest of life. We look forward to the holidays and putting aside the usual worries and concerns. Everyone seems so relaxed and everything for a few days appears to slow down. All over the world, children enact nativity scenes and Father Christmas comes to jolly everyone with presents and good cheer.
So what does courage have to do with Christmas? For that we need to go back over 2000 years ago and the harsh and brutal realities facing Mary and Joseph.
Joseph and Mary had a major dilemma on their hands. He was engaged to be married to her and Mary finds herself expecting a child. Here is how the Gospel of Matthew (writing about 80-90 years later) explains the situation (1:19-21)
“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph wants to do the honourable thing and quietly divorce Mary to avoid scandal for himself at least. At the same time he must have been very scared. That is why the angel has to tell him not to be afraid. In other words he needs courage.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage means you do what is needed even when it scares you.
Here are 3 ways Christmas at its essence is about courage:
Courage to accept undeserved shame.
The situation is that in such a time, place and culture an unwed mother was a source of great shame and embarrassment. That is still the case in many places in the world. Joseph can avoid any shame by quietly getting divorced. But whatever happens, sooner or later Mary is going to be disgraced. Other people will find out and in an honour based culture that is a huge deal. Her reputation will be ruined and she is likely to be cut off from her community, be despised and rejected. Joseph wants to do the honourable thing and so quietly divorce her. That will protect him, but not Mary. She faces potential destitution and rejection.
But the angel comes to Joseph and tells him that this baby is conceived through the Holy Spirit of God! If Joseph divorces Mary then everyone will assume Mary has been unfaithful to him. But if he marries her and they have this child a few months after they get married, then everyone will say they have together been unfaithful to God. Mary’s shame will then become Joseph’s.
What is so poignant about this is that 2000 years later bringing Jesus into your life and identifying with him still has the potential to bring great shame and disgrace. Contrary to the portrayal through most of the mainstream media, it is Christianity that is the most persecuted religious faith in the world today. (For more on this do see this Huffington Post article from 2013).
But what is also fascinating is 2000 years later through their willingness to accept undeserved shame, Mary and Joseph are arguably the world’s most remembered and revered couple of all time. Celebrity couples come and go, but these two illiterate teenagers from a backward country and a place of apparently no significance have outlasted every single one of them.
Courage to hand over control.
At the end of the passage above from Matthew’s Gospel, the angel says to Joseph to give this baby the name Jesus. That is surprising, because normally it is the parents who name their children. Giving a name is a sign of authority. We name our children because we are the ones who have authority over them. But the angel tells Joseph this child already comes with a name. In other words, Mary and Joseph are handing over control of this baby and their own lives to God. That too takes courage.
Once again this illustrates that being a true disciple of Christ is handing over control of my life to a higher authority. God is not some kind of personal assistant to get me what I want. Its not what we naturally like to or even want to do. It takes courage to hand over control of your life. Mary and Joseph had the courage to do that.
Courage to admit and face your dark side.
The name this baby is to be given is Jesus in the Greek language or Joshua in Hebrew. We are told that the name means ‘The Lord saves’. This baby has come to do a special task. As the gospel writer Matthew says, “He will save His people from their sins.” That seems a surprising thing to say. The Jews at the time were looking for someone to rescue them from Roman oppression. In our world and age we look for what will rescue us from the growing and menacing dangers and evils of this world – political instability, financial hardship, global warming and terrorism to name a few of the many challenges we face. But sin? Why sin? Sin is the proclivity we have to live life on our own terms without reference to God and His call on our lives.
This maybe is the hardest thing to accept about oneself to become a disciple of Christ. That there is a dark side to me that wants to live on my terms – that does not want God to tell me what to do. That would rather live selfishly according to my own standards. The problem is, if I am honest, I don’t even live up to my own standards, not to say anything about a God who is perfect and holy. This is no small matter about a few imperfections or small misdemeanours. It is understanding I have a dark side that I by myself cannot free myself from. It takes courage to admit you are a sinner who desperately needs God.
How did Joseph get that courage?
We are not entirely sure from the Gospel accounts. They don’t tell us much about what Joseph must have been thinking.
Joseph must have realised that Mary had allowed God to bring this child into her life, knowing that would cause enormous change and hardship. She had come to a very weak and vulnerable position. And that must have deeply moved Joseph to realise that Mary had risked her life to save him from his own sins.
What do I mean? Seeing Mary in such weakness left Joseph with a stark choice. He could break off the engagement and escape all the shame and disgrace – he certainly did not deserve it. But Joseph by staying with Mary allowed her disgrace and shame to come to him.
In that culture and time, a single unwed pregnant mother could face being killed by an angry violent mob. And if that did not happen, it is likely she would have been on the verge of starvation for the rest of her life.
So the only way for Mary to be saved was for Joseph to give up the life he wanted for himself.
The only way for Joseph to be saved was for Mary to give up the life she had wanted for herself.
That is a picture of what it means to be a true follower of Christ.
Such a person sees the extent God went to bring Jesus into the world, and ultimately in sending him to the cross. (For more on that see What Is So Good About Good Friday?)
Here is how Rico Tice puts it:
“God identifies with us. God came to us. Not only did God’s Son come as a person, He came as a baby – completely vulnerable, completely open, completely dependent. The hands that crafted the stars at the beginning of everything now reached up for a cuddle. The One who sustains the cosmos needed to be cleaned and changed. That’s how God came to us, to our world – He gave Himself as a baby.”
Joseph and Mary understood something of this. It is what gave them courage to step out into the unknown, weak and vulnerable, but trusting in the providence of God. And as they like to say, all the rest is history!
Where in your life does the Christmas story give you courage?
For more on courage see Do You Need Courage Today? and 5 Simple Steps To Finding Courage To Make A Tough Call
For more on Christmas and what it means see here