Isaiah 7:10-16 • Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 • Romans 1:1-7 • Matthew 1:18-25
In today's reading, Joseph is visited by an angel to discuss the pregnancy of his betrothed, Mary, and what Joseph is to do about it. The story describes an all-too-human plight: capable of conversing with angels but stuck in focusing on others – in this case, who slept with whom. Joseph himself seems to have recognized his plight and is unwilling to participate in a drawn-out process of blaming Mary. The angel comes to the rescue, quickly telling Joseph what he is to do, before turning the conversation to the naming of the baby.
Naming a baby is an interesting process. Different families take different approaches. Some look through lists of popular names, others come up with something unique. Some choose to continue a name that has been in the family for a long time; others choose deliberately to discontinue a tradition. I know a family who named each of their male children after a U.S. president. Was that reflective of a devotion to their country, a desire that a family leader might emerge, or more simply, a lack of imagination? To what extent do the names of children represent a family's hopes?
In the reading, the angel mentions a couple of names, each reflecting the hopes of the Jewish people at that time. The first name, Jesus, was a common pronunciation of Joshua: the leader after Moses who brought the Israelites into the promised land. It was Joshua's job to complete the exodus from slavery in Egypt: a job incomplete, in many ways. Not only were the people still chafing under the rule of others, but more generally, they were still slaves to sin.
Being a slave to sin is the experience of lacking mastery over oneself. This baby was different from Joshua or any political leader in history. This baby's job was to set people free from within. How? The angel is quick to answer this question, with reference to a second name: Emmanuel (v. 23) or 'God is with us.' Somehow, the presence of God creates a capacity within a person to rule oneself. The presence might lower anxiety and fear, creating a space for a person to act from a mature position, to think more clearly, to use emotional reasoning to manage both inner tensions and relationships with others. Relationship systems where individuals are free to be themselves while staying connected with each other may be expressions of Emmanuel.
Finding this inner freedom is a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment work. One thing that may help is naming the intention to find it. Like the family who named their children after presidents, one can be bold here, naming an intention towards a way of living that casts aside all that has held one back from becoming a full self. Attending to oneself and what one has agency over, rather than a critical or worried focus on others, is the beginning point.
Morning: What is my intention today?
Evening: What got in the way of attending to my intentions?