December 18, 2022
Matthew 1: 18-24
Today, in Matthew’s gospel, we meet an extraordinary, ordinary man; Joseph, the husband of Mary. The just and holy man who walks familiarly with God was a beloved theme of Hebrew scripture. Joseph collaborates with God and with Mary in a manner totally contrary to the culture of the time. He stands out as one who cherishes the choice he has made of Mary and finds a way to protect her and her Child. For young Jewish brides like Mary, there were two parts to the marriage contract: a formal betrothal, agreed between male family members, and then the woman was considered married to the man. She was henceforth his wife, but would only later be brought formally to his home. So, Mary’s suspect pregnancy could be punished as adultery, with the dread possibility of stoning, for she was already the wife of Joseph, even though she was not living with him.
We know very little about Joseph from the gospels, apart from the fact that he is described as “upright”. The most likely explanation is that Joseph scrupulously observed the Jewish law and loved every detail of it. He will have embodied the words of Micah, the prophet, to “act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God”. (Micah 6:8) We meet him at the point of desperation. His young bride, in whom, no doubt, he took immense pride and joy, was revealed to be already pregnant. We can only begin to imagine his anguish. Moreover, he had to pay attention to the Law which required the stoning to death of the adulteress at the door of her father’s house. (Deut. 22:20). In a less severe system, which may have been practised at the time, Joseph was, at the very least, required to “put away the evil one” which usually meant to divorce her. Joseph was obviously unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, but he knew that he should not proceed with the rest of the marriage contract and take Mary to his home, because of his observance of the Law. If he fails to accuse Mary of serious crime, he may save her from death by ordeal, but he does not really “save” her, because the abandoned woman would be un-welcome, even in her own household. (All of these punitive laws were directed against the offending woman and not against the man who may have seduced her.cf. John Ch.8) Joseph decides to proceed as leniently as possible, so as to spare Mary disgrace. He is planning to break off the marriage contract quietly when the angel of the Lord intervenes. The angel is described as coming to Joseph in a dream. The Psalmist tells us that God ‘pours gifts on his beloved whilst they slumber’, and in this case that is certainly so for Joseph. The mystery of sleep is closely allied to the mysterious surrender of death, of which Joseph is also patron. Whatever the reality, try to see Joseph in your imagination as he tosses about on his rough pallet, in the throes of a nightmare that is shortly to be converted into the stuff of which dreams are made. The angel of the Lord enters his dream, somewhere in that mysterious realm between body and spirit, or in the infinitesimal space between life and death. The angel speaks: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid …” This greeting is God’s hallmark. “Do not be afraid” occurs in the Bible three hundred and sixty-five times; once for every day of the year!
By adopting Jesus as his own child, Joseph not only protected Mary and the child from public censure and destitution. Matthew is at pains to point out that he also gave the child clear descent through the line of David even though Joseph was of humble origin. We shall see later that Joseph’s dreams, for there is more than one, serve to link him with the other Joseph, the patriarch who had a specific gift to interpret dreams, and was known as “a man of dreams”. He cared for the Hebrew people during their long exile in Egypt. Our Joseph is a true “Man of Dreams”. He enables the dream of Israel for a Messiah. By accepting Mary into his household, he makes a place of refuge for the young mother and her infant son, and later he will take his family to Egypt as migrants to escape the wrath of Herod. Joseph, alongside Mary, is given the privilege of naming the child; “You will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. Joseph responded with obedience to God’s message. He took Mary home and accepted the child as his own. Little did he think that this would be the outcome of faithful observance of God’s Law! This silent man is the patron of families; the patron of contentment and of a blessed and holy death.
In these days when we experience a new wave of ‘modern’ misogyny in our world, we remember this caring, compassionate man and the many more that we know among our families, friends and colleagues, and we thank God for them. There are many other ‘Josephs’ out there, protecting their children as best they can from war, famine, trafficking, leaking vessels on the seas, and all the other challenges and evils in our modern world. Many of them will never have heard of Joseph but we commend them all to the care of this just and ‘quiet’ man.
Matthew 1: 18-24
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
The Gospel of the Lord
Meet Sister Magdalen Lawler, SNDdeN