Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.Matthew 1:18–25
When we as a family first moved from India to the UK, we were asked to fill in our first name and surname on the visa forms and other documents. This caused confusion, because like some of our Indian brothers and sisters, we did not have a surname. We always had initials which were our fathers’ names. We found ourselves having to create a surname for the sake of filling the forms. As a result, I now carry my husband’s second name as my surname, and for the sake of having a surname, I had to give up my own second name by which I am usually called. As a woman, my identity was always moulded around my male relatives – my father initially, and then my husband after marriage. From now on, my son will carry on my husband’s name as his family identity. As a woman, I will be forgotten by future generations of my family. My connection and my identity will be lost after me.
It is not just my name that I carry, but the patriarchal system and structure that shapes and reshapes my life, in which my identity is lost. It creates dependency which I am tied up with. To rediscover my identity, I have to untie different layers of patriarchal knots in order to liberate myself and be fully myself. In this process of my self-discovery, I read this passage from Mathew 1:18-25.
In Matthew 1, Matthew begins Jesus’s story by listing the genealogy that leads to Jesus, Mathew clearly tries to connect Jesus with Joseph. He tells us who Jesus is, how he is connected with what went on before, and what is going to come next. By starting with Jesus’s genealogy, Matthew builds up the history as it was before Jesus, but then the story changes. In the light of Jesus’s arrival, everything needs to be reinterpreted, including the genealogy itself. The story after Jesus’s birth is not the same as when it started. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning that changes everything.
Matthew presents Jesus’s genealogy by preparing the Jewish audience to see their own connection to Jesus. In the first chapter of Matthew, we hear the story of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph. We do not have much information about Joseph except for his role around the time of Christ’s birth. Only Matthew and Luke discuss Joseph; Mark and the Pauline epistles do not mention him at all, and only Matthew connects Jesus with David’s lineage through Joseph.
Although the connection is made through the lineage of Joseph, Jesus is not Joseph’s biological son. Matthew starts his genealogy in the usual patriarchal way, but Jesus does not continue this line. Does this not mean freedom from the patriarchal lineage? Jesus is connected with the genealogy of David that led up to him—not in the same way, but differently. The way Matthew weaves Jesus’ genealogy together highlights the cosmic significance of Christ the Messiah. One of the ways he tries to present the genealogy differently is by including Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth in the genealogy. By including Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth, Matthew demonstrates that God uses women who are put in sexually perilous or vulnerable positions to further his objectives. Matthew might have had the purpose of preparing the hearts of his audience to accept Mary as the mother of Jesus the Messiah, as Mary herself is in a vulnerable position like those mentioned in the genealogy. Motherhood for these women was not an easy one, but they had to go through vulnerability in order to bear a child. It is in this way that Matthew tries to prepare his audience to receive Mary as a vulnerable woman who will bear the Christ child. In their vulnerability, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth shared a tradition. In a patriarchal world, the four of them had to fight for their motherhood. Mathew challenges the patriarchal world by including these four women. These four represent all the missing women in the genealogy.
In verse 18, Matthew moves on from David’s genealogy and says: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit,” which signifies a departure from the lineage that came before. By choosing Mary, he challenges the patriarchal world for forgetting the world of women. It is a new beginning because the story does not start with “this father begot this son,” but rather with “Mary begot Jesus.” It is a counter-public theology that breaks down all the gender-biased genealogy that first century Christians were familiar with. It is this counter-public theology that the world women wanted to celebrate. This break opens all expectations of a traditional identity that follows from a man’s biological father. Now, with the arrival of Jesus, a new identity and a new world begins. It is a new beginning for many reasons.
It is a new beginning because God chose Mary as a way to have his relationship with human beings. In this redemptive work, human beings are partakers. According to Matthew, the angel told Joseph to name him Jesus: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name “Jesus” conveys an important message. It comes from the Hebrew word Jeshua or Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” The name “Jesus” expresses Christ’s identity and the purpose with which he came into this world. It is a familiar name in the Hebrew Bible, and by taking a familiar name with an established Hebrew/Jewish connection, Jesus’s name reveals God’s nature of being relational. He is always a personal God, who tries to have a personal relationship with his people. The meaning of the name establishes his cosmic redemptive relevance, that is, to liberate all people. In this redemptive act, women, marginalised and vulnerable, have an important part to play so that it will be a complete redemptive act. As Rosemary Ruether (18), in her book Sexism and God Talk says, “Whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.” Redemption is experienced only when everyone experiences the liberation/redemption. For this, God chose a vulnerable woman to be his partner to bring the liberation.
Therefore, what follows from verse 18 is a new beginning and a new identity for future generations. Jesus starts with a matriarchal lineage in which Mary represents all women who are forgotten in the history. Through Mary, the son of God builds his family line so that all the women, the vulnerable and the marginalised, are included in the redemptive act of God. God did not choose the strong and the mighty but a vulnerable woman to help him come to this world. We often ask why God chose the powerless instead of the powerful, but the understanding of power shifted with the arrival of Jesus.
In this new beginning, power is seen in the vulnerability of the human being; power is seen in the characteristics of the vulnerable and the marginalised. This is the case with Joseph as well as Mary. With Mary, we are able to change our perception of the power of women. Her power is in the way she is accepted to be the co-creator through which God could fulfil his plan. When the world of men degraded motherhood, God chose a vulnerable woman as his tool to come into this world and gave motherhood an exalted position. I wonder whether Mary meets Elizabeth in this context of her vulnerability. In their mutual vulnerability, Mary meets Elizabeth, with whom she finds a safer space to share the vulnerability.
Giving birth to a Christ child without a male counterpart signifies that women are partakers in creation, which is a redemptive act in itself. Unless we recognise the role of women in Jesus’s redemptive activity, we will not understand God’s redemptive act fully. The redemptive action began with the birth of Jesus by talking about Mary as a co-creator, which continues with his presence amongst us. Immanuel is the beginning of a new era in which he not only chose to be born and live amongst us, but he also works with us, by choosing Mary as his co-creator to come to this world. By being amongst us, he has established a new era in which he expects everyone to be co-workers to establish his kingdom on earth. Salvation or redemption must be specifically named in relation to characters who struggle for survival on the edges of society. Unless we name this missing aspect we are not aiming towards redemption of the whole creation.
In this process of naming the missing aspect, what if we start explaining the genealogy of Jesus through Mary? Who is the mother of Mary and the grandmother and great-grandmother of Jesus, and so on? We may not get the full picture straight away because women’s history is not important in the patriarchal world, therefore not maintained in official records. We could only go so far with Anne, Mary’s mother, but none of the canonical books mention Anne. Only the gospel of James in the apocrypha mentions Anne. Most of the women in the bible are not mentioned by their names. The other way to reclaim Mary is to hear the birth of Jesus from the words of Mary.
What if Mary began explaining her story of being born and brought up as a daughter of Anne, and how she was nurtured by her parents? What might she have shared with her mother when she came to know she was carrying Christ child and the difficulty involved in convincing her own parents and her friends of her pregnancy? Mary would have explained the difficulties of being a young unmarried woman, carrying a child in a male dominant world, overcoming the abuses of a patriarchal society. Mary who comes into her co-creative power by struggling to embrace life through confrontations with otherness and with their own nothingness represents a missing aspect of whole creation. In Mary, I myself encounter creative power as the power to save from denial and marginalisation and to trust goodness in an often-hostile world.
Though we cannot go back to the history that erased whole female narratives, reclaiming Mary as the mother of Jesus now in our context would enable us to remember other women in future generations. As we are in the season of Advent, we are reminded of the purpose of Christ’s coming, to reclaim the forgotten faces in the history: women, the marginalised and the vulnerable.