There have been many reflections during this week pointing out particular parts of this weeks Gospel. One might look at the comparison between the two names given: Jesus and Emmanuel (which I will address later). One might also look at the commendable faithfulness of Joseph, who in his shining moment truly becomes a model of obedience through confusion. Another reflection might also look more deeply at the relationship between Mary and Joseph: the “righteous man” and the quiet divorce which reflects contemporary honour. Any of these might link into the readings of the day or of any other Old Testament reference as a support.
I however choose to examine a different aspect, not to the negation of any other. One phrase strikes me as a little unusual particularly in regards to its placement: “…who is to save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Mark (Ch 8) is a marque reference addressing the uniqueness of God being the only person who can forgive sins when the paralytic is lowered down to him for healing. This draws on the Old Testament priestly tradition where sinners were to offer sacrifice for their sins through the priest to God. This was done by use of a proxy (a sacrificial animal) who bore the sins of the penitent. (It is not hard to see the sacrificial role of Jesus in this context and is drawn out further, most significantly, in the letter to the Hebrews which designates Jesus as the Sacrifice and the Priest.)
But this is not about Easter – the moment of his sacrifice – it is Christmas! It is all “joyful and triumphant” not “it is finished”! But that’s the point. Why is it that there is a reference to sins during the birth of Jesus? We know now with the gifts of hindsight and faith why that is, but to Joseph this would not have been the case. The name “Jesus” has a fairly fluid meaning but is most accurately interpreted as “God Saves”: but from what? The Messiah they were waiting for was a liberator from oppression. While the name Emmanuel means “God-with-us” the name Jesus adds depth: God-with-us as a Saviour.
Where the deviation occurs is in the understanding of Saviour; what Joseph (and later many others) understood of the Saviour is different to what God has in mind. This is what God addressed by adding “… who is to save his people from their sins.” I am reminded of King Solomon’s prayer of dedication (1 Kg 8:22-53) that he prayed after the temple was completed. This beautiful prayer pleads to God for forgiveness of the sins of his people. Jesus, in “rebuilding the temple in three days”, becomes for us the place for us to go for our sins to be forgiven.
In the simple words “to save his people from their sins” God allows Joseph a glimpse into the mission, the role, and the mystery of his Son and Saviour. This simple phrase points to Christ as the Perfect Sacrifice, as the High Priest, and the Holy Temple. Already at his birth his death is prefigured; a prefigurement echoed in the gifts of the Magi: Gold for his Kingship at the Temple; Frankincense for his Royal Priesthood; Myrrh for his death as a Sacrificial offering.
Just as every mass celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ, so too does every mass celebrate the birth of our Saviour. There is, therefore, something eternal about every mass; every Christ-mas. This allows us a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of God we may not understand but need to accept. Are we there ready to accept God like a faithful Joseph? Or to acknowledge it joyfully like the Magi? There is something eternal about every Christmas and is lived by our reception of God-with-us.