We have all seen the tragedy of the huge fire that destroyed much of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In the days after the fire, we have witnessed theological discussions about why the fire happened, and whether it is a demonstration that there is no God. Should God have protected Notre Dame Cathedral?
We want to point out a few things about the fire, Notre Dame Cathedral, and what the Bible says about the Church and church buildings. Of course, the fire was a tragedy. Anti-Catholic writers and atheists have denied it was a tragedy. Those critics maintain that it was good that this religious symbol was destroyed. We would point out that Notre Dame Cathedral has great historical significance and was a testimony to the artistic expression and skill of ancient human engineers and artisans. The building was a museum and had great tourism value. A destructive event in the Louvre or the Smithsonian would be comparable to what happened at Notre Dame.
From a theological standpoint, the fire is of little or no significance. Nowhere in the New Testament was there a command or instruction to build any kind of building. The name Notre Dame means “Our Lady.” Mary was blessed to be a tool of God to bring His Son into the world, but nowhere does the Bible command us to worship her. The Bible does not portray her as an intermediary between God and man.
The word “Church” in the original Greek is “ekklesia,” meaning “that which is called out.” The Bible never uses the term in reference to a building. Passages like 1 Corinthians 3:16 tell us what the Church is. From a religious standpoint, church buildings have often been a bane to faith, consuming money that should have gone to provide for the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Frequently buildings becoming objects of worship themselves — an idol instead of a tool.
We are sad about what has happened. It is interesting to see the French government talking about using national funds to restore the building. Should God have protected Notre Dame Cathedral? The question is meaningless because the fire has nothing to do with God’s actions in the world today.
— John N. Clayton © 2019
Many of us remember news broadcaster Paul Harvey, who had a series he called “The Rest of the Story.” He would tell us things related to a current news story that we might not be aware of, but which were significant to the story. I suggest that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ, is “the rest of the story” in this season as we look at Joseph’s role in Christmas.
Joseph was a Jew, as was Mary (Matthew 1:1-17). In the Jewish system, the marriage relationship was complex. The groom would make a verbal declaration to the bride of his intent to marry her. This promise involved a gift, it was made in the presence of two witnesses, and it could not be revoked without a formal divorce. The groom and bride would not have relations or live together for a year as the bride stayed with her parents. At the end of the year, the groom would come and take the bride to his family home and the marriage would be consummated. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly to prove that the bride was not pregnant and that her claim to be a virgin was true. If it were established that the bride was not a virgin, she would be stoned to death by the men in the town according to Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
In Joseph’s case, it seemed clear that Mary was not a virgin because she was pregnant (Matthew 1:18-19). This meant that she could be stoned to death for violating the Jewish law. We see this in John 8:3-5. When the lawyers and Pharisees quoted the law, Jesus told the sinless ones to start throwing stones. They were all afraid to cast the first stone and one-by-one they slipped away.
Joseph loved Mary, and you have to know that his heart was breaking at the situation. He had a dream in which an angel told him that the baby Mary was carrying was a special creation of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20-25). For that reason, Joseph should not fear that he was breaking the Jewish law. It would have been easy for Joseph to explain away the dream as a figment of what he wanted, or as a product of stress. Instead, he accepted the dream and went on with the marriage.
Joseph sets the standard of obedience to God by accepting Mary and the situation she brought into his life. He accepted being a father to Jesus and went through all of the painful experiences of a Jewish father (Luke 2:41-48). He did all of that even though he didn’t understand it all (Luke 2:49-50).
Joseph is an unheralded hero of the Christmas story. We need to follow his example of being obedient to the things God calls us to do, no matter what life and circumstances may bring upon us. Joseph’s role in Christmas should be the “rest of the story” for us.
–John N. Clayton © 2017
Christians see Mary mother of Jesus as a woman who demonstrates what a mother should be. The angel told Mary, “Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:30). Mary’s response was “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). That is an incredible response because it is so unselfish and full of faith.
Mary’s name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “bitter.” Indeed what Mary was about to endure in the culture of her day would be bitter. She was going to be pregnant with a child when she was not married. Her husband-to-be would be under pressure to break off their relationship. She would have no visible means of support. Jesus would be born as an illegitimate child and would have the scorn of those around him. People would ridicule Mary’s claim that the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Even after Jesus was born, Mary’s life would not be easy. Shortly after the birth of the baby, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus would have to flee to Egypt. There she would experience a culture and a language she did not know. Joseph’s occupation was carpentry, which was not financially or socially prestigious. Matthew 13:55 shows the attitude of people to Joseph’s common trade and his family of four sons and more than one daughter, in addition to Jesus. Joseph apparently died before Jesus began his ministry and Jesus was required by law to care for his mother. At his crucifixion, Jesus turned Mary’s care over to his disciple John (John 19:26).
Portrayals of Mary by artists show her as a beautiful woman, but physical beauty is not the emphasis given to us in the Bible. Proverbs 31:30 tells us, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” What we see in Mary is a spiritual woman whose first love is God. She was praised by Elizabeth saying, “Blessed are you for believing that the things that the Lord has said to you will be done” (Luke 1:45). Mary responded by saying, “My heart is overflowing with the praise of the Lord and my spirit has found joy in God for He has regarded the humble state of His bondslave” (Luke 1:46- 48).
Christianity has elevated all women, and the Bible portrays Mary as a woman who is everything God calls women to be. When Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:15 about women being saved through childbirth, he gave us a picture of a role that women can choose. Mary had the strength to accept and live that role. She did it by choice, not because she was forced to accept it. No man can ever have such an opportunity. The Bible makes it clear that Mary had a choice, and she chose well.
–John N. Clayton © 2017