In our gospel lesson for today, the spotlight falls on Joseph. On this last Sunday of Advent, before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, the mystery of God coming to us as a child, we have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man named Joseph. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.
In the history of Christian reflection on the birth of Jesus, from the heights of Renaissance art to the folksiness of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and center. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off uncomfortably to one side. He seems like a guy who is not too fond of family pictures. When the camera comes out for the family photo, Joseph is like the husband who is a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. He knows that as wonderful as pictures are, they distort reality, because life isn’t all wonderful moments. Life is more about the grace of daily obligation, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day. For Joseph, a carpenter, a man who was probably more comfortable working with his hands than talking, life is more like finding the right tool for the right job than a series of photographable moments.
In Christmas pageants we all know who the star is: Mary. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories of little girls who were disappointed because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, there are fewer stories of little boys who felt slighted because they didn’t get to play Joseph. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings, or, if not a king, at least a shepherd so you can wear a bathrobe and your father’s tie wrapped around your head. After all, when you think of Christmas pageants the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.
If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” In those days, there were two steps leading to marriage. The first was betrothal. This was a legally binding period that lasted a year before the couple actually married and started living together. If anything happens during the betrothal to dissolve the relationship, it’s legally the same as getting a divorce. Mary and Joseph are in this first stage, legally bound to one another, awaiting the day of their marriage. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, it is not good news. It’s bad news, very bad news.
Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. What more was there to say?
But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first option is to bring charges against Mary in public. He could publically accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty for adultery under the law is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty. People would eventually find out that Mary was pregnant and unwed, but she would be at least spared the public hearing and punishment.
Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. To do so would be to say that his relationship to Mary exists outside of their relationship to God. Unthinkable. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.
Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb 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.”
This is an amazing revelation! Yet, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? Matthew’s narrative is terse, but it fits exactly the character of Joseph. He responds like the ordinary, righteous man that he was. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Period. Joseph was a righteous man. He spent his entire life trying to follow God’s commands. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God and to following God’s law, Joseph knew when he was being given a message from God. He needed no extra words, no extra explanations.
The young Mary, when she had heard the news of the birth of Christ, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. The fruit of a lifetime of devotion to God’s law are eyes and ears attuned to the Lord. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.
The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph. The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man.
Joseph was also a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to follow it. And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world. And this is amazing!