How does good come about in the world?
Often, when we long for change, we think in terms of cleaning up the government, tinkering with the economy or, in general, engaging the large systems and institutions that govern our lives. We think that large-scale change mostly happens in the corridors of power.
The Christmas story—the story of how God sent the Messiah to save us from ourselves and the mess we have made of the world we live in—began with ordinary and lowly people confronted with having to make choices.
A woman from the village of Nazareth, probably still in her teens, was pronounced to be the most blessed among all women—and that blessing, incredibly, was to bear a child without having slept with a man.
From the point of view of the angel Gabriel, this was of course a great privilege—to bear the child of the Most High. But from the eyes of a village girl, she runs the risk of being put away by her betrothed as a disgraced woman and ruin her chances of ever marrying. Not to mention the prospect of gossip in a small village where details of birthing and dying cannot be kept from curious neighbors.
And then there was Joseph—Mary’s betrothed—who similarly faced a dilemma. An option provided for by the law in case of unfaithfulness in a betrothal was to declare the woman an adulteress. Being a good man, he could not bear to expose Mary to public shame.
The account of the Apostle Matthew implies that Joseph was nevertheless perplexed even after this decision. He kept thinking about how this must have happened, knowing that Mary was a good and honest woman. So an angel had to appear and tell him in a dream that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. “Go ahead and marry her,” the angel said. “Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:20-21).”
When Joseph woke up, he and Mary were soon wed, just as the angel had told him to do. The rest is history.
Now embedded in the memory of cultures within the sphere of that old architectonic structure called “Christendom” is the ritual celebration of Christmas and Holy Week, remembering the historic advent of the Son of God and his subsequent death on the cross.
One wonders what could have happened if Mary refused to carry the child, and Joseph dismissed the dream merely as an illusion—the product of a tormented mind—torn between love and an unaccountable perplexity.
To be sure, God in his sovereignty would have a thousand other options in carrying out his grand project of saving the world. But Joseph and Mary would have missed their historical cues and forever remain in the margins of the human story.
Without our knowing it, the good we long to happen in the world usually gets done through the choices ordinary people make. Mary and Joseph were only small people, part of the mass of humanity moving towards their hometowns in order to register as decreed by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Yet the decision to birth and parent the child and shelter it from the fierce onslaught of threatened powers meant the saving of the world.
Today, we are being asked to stand our ground—often in the face of overwhelming odds—and stem the tidal forces of evil that have entrenched themselves in the world’s systems. We are not being asked to take on a messianic task, but only to stand where we are and make the everyday choices that incrementally make the world a better place.
Like Joseph and Mary, we may not be aware of the full significance of the choices we are being asked to make. But we can be sure that when faced with the challenge of choosing between good and evil, casting our lot on the side of the good will in the end mean a lot in that eternal story now being written on the larger canvas of human history.