by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
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.
Often, our lives have a way to dramatically changing course and plunging us into deep and uncharted waters, leaving us feeling out of our depth and ill-equipped. such is certainly the case for St. Joseph in our gospel this Sunday (Mt1:18-24). After all, in a single paragraph, Joseph first catapults through the shock of discovering Mary is with child, then through the resolved mercy of quiet divorce, and then entirely changes course based on a message from an angel in a dream. Quite the series of complicated circumstances.
Yet, through it all, Joseph presents us with a fine image of how to proceed in those times: a person of faith navigating a difficult situation with humility, simply trying to do what is good, right and just. Further, God uses just such an image to illustrate an even more profound point for us his Advent. Namely, Jesus intends for us to take an active role in preparing his way in this world, even when we feel unworthy or not cut out for it. Further, he intends for us to take an active role in preparing his way in this world, even when we feel unworthy or not cut out for it. Further, he intends us to grow into living that role by living through the challenges and chaos if faith.
We start by a simple observation: Joseph and Mary probably talked at length about Mary's child (yet to be named Jesus) and whence he came. Joseph would have heard the full scoop. He also likely knew Mary's heart and believed her story. After all, he'd definitely have worked out that Mary was uniquely virtuous among women though probably not how unique. She wasn't the type to tell tales. And now she was the mother of the Son of God. This left him wondering what to do.
While some scholars suggest that Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly out of embarrassment or because she was no longer legally fit for marriage, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others have found this line of explanation unconvincing. Rather, they maintain that Joseph chose to divorce Mary quietly out of reverence to the Lord and his presence now in Mary's womb. After all, who was Joseph to dabble in the affairs of the almighty?
In this light, Joseph knew several seemingly irreconcilable truths: He didn't want to hurt Mary or cause her shame. He also knew that according to God's law, his moral compass, it seemed that divorce was the suggested best option (even if marriage remained a possibility). Yet, that would likely cause only more social trouble for Mary, making her an unwed mother. But most significantly, Joseph would have now seen Mary rightly as a tabernacle of God most high, and himself as profoundly unworthy to be involved either as Mary's husband or a father figure to God.
Thus, St. Joseph resolved to bow out, trying to navigate a seemingly impossible situation using his faith and reason to guide him as best he could. Yet, as he lay down to rest in the Lord, how his heart must have ached knowing that something wasn't quite right about that decision. He would have been on the lookout for any sign from the Holy Spirit to take a better path, if only one were found. Enter Gabriel and the rest is history and eternity.
God intended Joseph to take a real, personal role in salvation history by preparing the way of the Lord. He intends the same for us, in the intimacy of our lives, even though we might feel inadequate or unworthy. Sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, it might even involve social stigma. Yet, we are the witnesses to the presence of Jesus and God that will sustain us in that calling. In the coming weeks, we'll likely find ourselves out of our depth in various sorts of holiday chaos amid family and friends. Who will prepare the way of the Lord there? Who will make Jesus present? We will, jus like Joseph: proceeding by faith and reason, resting in the Lord, and open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.