“Far from stepping aside from the mystery, Joseph – you are to guard the mystery.”
One of our greatest teachers has no spoken word written down for posterity. Instead, we learn from his example. Far from being simply the third figure in our Nativity sets or the old grey-haired man in the dark corner of the stable on Christmas cards, Saint Joseph is one of our greatest models for holiness. In today’s Gospel, Joseph shows us what it means to be just and obedient to the will of God.
Since we do not have exhaustive detail of the nine months prior to Jesus’ birth, we do not know precisely how Joseph found out Mary was pregnant or what his initial thoughts and feelings were upon hearing this news. As a result, there are several theories regarding today’s Gospel. Today, I think we are often tainted by movies or assumptions about how we think it happened. But let’s look at the text.
First, we know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. This is not like a modern-day engagement period. Rather, betrothal was the first stage in a marriage. They would have been considered legally married, without living together as man and wife. Mary would have remained with her parents for about a year, before the second stage of marriage, when normally a husband and wife would consummate the marriage covenant. To call Mary “unmarried” at the time of the Annunciation is falsely imposing our modern understanding of marriage on a first-century Jewish situation. For example, if a woman’s husband died during the betrothal period, she would be referred to in Jewish literature as “a virgin who is a widow.”
It is during this stage that the angel appears to Mary and she conceives of the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we have the story of Joseph debating what to do about the situation. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a “just man” and therefore doesn’t want to expose her, and so decides to divorce her.
But Joseph would be breaking the law if he puts her away quietly (Dt 22: 23-24). The Law called for not only the betrothed virgin to be stoned, but also the man. Living under Roman authority, the Jews were not allowed to put anyone to death (John 18:31), so a public trial resulting in divorce seems to have been the norm at the time. But the fact remains that Matthew says in a single breath that Joseph was a just man and yet resolved to send her away. How could we say he was a just man if he was not going to obey the Law of Moses?
Many homilies or other explanations of this Gospel take for granted that Joseph suspected Mary and wanted to divorce her to distance himself from the whole situation. But perhaps there is another explanation.
We know that Joseph, if he was just, knew the writings of the prophets quite well. The Jews knew the Scriptures intimately, likely having large quantities of the Law and the Prophets memorized.
Historical writings of this time show that there was an air of expectation. The prophets had been writing for hundreds of years about the coming Messiah, but at the time of His coming, even non-Jews were writing about the coming of a king in the land of Judah, of all places.
We also assume that Joseph had known Mary for quite some time. Nazareth was a small village, possibly as small as 500 inhabitants, so she is no stranger to him. Have you ever known a holy person? They radiate with that holiness. Now imagine the holiest person that has ever lived – someone who was conceived without original sin.
With all this in mind, let us look at three theories regarding Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly.
The Suspicion Theory seems to be the most popular theory today. We hear it in Christmas carols like The Cherry Tree Carol, and perhaps it is the one that we might relate to in our own lives. Joseph was suspicious of the origins of Mary’s pregnancy and wanted to divorce her accordingly. This theory is not necessarily wrong; Augustine held this theory, for example.
There is also a theory called Perplexity Theory. It posits that Joseph knew Mary well enough to know that she would not have been unfaithful to him, but he was confused by what is happening. Out of love for her, he did not want to expose her publicly. St. Jerome held this theory.
A third theory is the Reverence Theory. Perhaps Joseph was either told by Mary or found out in some other way that this baby was conceived “of the Holy Spirit.” Knowing Mary’s character, he believed her. Knowing the prophecies, he realized what the Lord was doing. Knowing Isaiah’s prophecy that the virgin would conceive and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14), he also knew there was no mention of him. He loved Mary and did not want to stand in the way of the will of God for her. As a just man, he knew himself unworthy to be involved. He decided to step away out of reverence. Perhaps he wondered if the men of the Old Covenant were struck dead by merely touching the Ark of the Covenant, what would happen to him if he presumed to live with the presence of God?
With this theory in mind, listen to what the angel told him: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph, son of David, you have a part to play in this grand drama. You will give the Son of God his legal identity. You are to bestow on him his name. Far from stepping aside from the mystery, Joseph- you are to guard the mystery. You are to protect, nurture, and lead this family. You have a mission.
Model of Virtue
Joseph is our model for obedience to the will of God. He loved Mary with such a deep, pure, intimate love that he wanted nothing less for her than for her to follow the will of God. Do I love my family and friends with such abandon?
Joseph had to trust in the dark of doubt and uncertainty. He was not even given an angelic visitor in the bright of day; rather, he was asked to trust a dream (more than once). Do I have the same unwavering faith and courage?
Joseph was asked to accept a plan quite different from the one he had discerned. Instead of being attached to his own plans or even his own discernment, he walked forward in humility. Am I willing to let go of my own discernment or dreams to follow the greater mission God asks of me?
As we begin this year-long celebration of Saint Joseph, let us plead for his intercession. May we too grow in obedience, trust, courage, humility, and detachment.
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