The last Sunday in Advent is traditionally Mary's Day. On this day we hear of the visit of the angel, her consent to be the Mother of our Lord, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her song, the Magnificat. We marvel at her faith and faithfulness and struggle to be as trusting of God, as confident of His will, and as peaceful amid life's changes as was this Virgin Mother. But not this year. Matthew talks about Joseph. Joseph??? Who is he?
Today we remember Joseph, not the father of Jesus, but the guardian whom the Lord chose just as He chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus. He is the oft forgotten one in the story of Jesus' birth. Today we take a look at this man whom God placed to be father figure, teacher, example of faith, protector and defender of the Holy Family. What kind of a man was he?
Joseph had been betrothed to Mary, a year long engagement process that began with the meeting of the families and ended with a marriage celebration banquet. But early on in this process Joseph found that Mary was pregnant. With a child from the Holy Spirit. Now the idea of a virgin birth was not so crazy in Joseph's day. Whether a virgin birth is possible is a question only a modern scientific world would ask. A virgin birth was not so crazy to people of the New Testament period. It was a common belief that the great men at the time, from Plato to Alexander, had been born without human father. Maybe a virgin birth did not strike Joseph as far fetched as it does us today. But Joseph would be shocked by our modern reproductive technology, where science has replaced mystery and conception is something we control instead of God.
So perhaps the usual perspective on Joseph is not the only way to see him. Perhaps Joseph's shock at the pregnancy and his suspicion that Mary had been unfaithful and was unworthy of marrying him, were not the only things to stick out of this story.
The usual take on this is that Joseph didn't really get it until the angel appeared to him in a dream. I found that some in the early church had a quite different view. Matthew tells us Mary was "found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." Found by whom? Well, by Joseph. Could this suggest he already got it that the babe in her womb was from the Holy Spirit. So why did he plan to dismiss her, being a righteous man? Being righteous does not mean morally superior but is a way of affirming a person’s faith – Joseph was a god fearing man. A God-fearing man might assume that since Mary's child is of God, Mary herself belongs to God, and perhaps the best thing for him to do would be to quietly step out of the picture.
Why does the angel say "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife." Why would he be afraid if he were angry over his fear that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Could it be that what he feared was not scandal or public humiliation but God? Could it be that Joseph stepped back from this whole situation as did Moses who took off his shoes when he realized he was standing on holy ground? Could it be that this was Joseph’s holy ground and, in deference to God, he stepped back until God assured him that Joseph had a place and a purpose in God’s plan – just as Mary did?
Joseph was a just man. He was not simply fair minded but open to the wisdom of the Lord. He was a God-fearing man. He was a compassionate man who desired no harm to Mary. He was a pious man whose concern was not himself or Mary but the Lord. When the Lord assured him that he had a place and a purpose in the unfolding drama of the incarnation of God's Son through the Virgin Mary, Joseph accepted the call of the Lord and did what was good and right before the Lord. This is the perspective of faith.
Joseph was a man of faith who trusted in the Word of the Lord without fear for himself or his own future. It was God's will that was most important and Joseph was obedient to the will and purpose of God. He would do what the Lord required of him – without fear and without regret. Such is the measure of the man whom God chose to be father figure and guardian of His only-begotten Son. So God chose well both the Virgin whom He set apart to be Mother of our Lord and Joseph whom He set apart as guardian protector.
What we see in Joseph is grace under pressure. He teaches us by his own example. He shows us the justice and wisdom of God are to rule our hearts and minds and our relationships with others. God's way is the path on which we are to walk. He encourages us not to be quick to judge the Lord but patient and faithful. He shows us how to apply God’s compassion and charity to our relationships with one another. The compassion of God is what is to rule our earthly relationships and love is the dominion of faith and faithfulness.
What we see in Joseph is faith to inspire our own faith in God when everything around us screams no, God's "Yes" is what we will hold on to. What we see in Joseph is trust in the Lord when our eyes, minds, and hearts are filled with fear, uncertainty, or doubt. We will trust in God who does not disappoint us.
Finally, Joseph teaches us the path of obedience. It is not only that we believe the Word of the Lord but we follow in its way. We walk with the Word as the light on our path, encouraging obedience in us and showing us the path on which the obedient will walk upon. How do we keep God's Word without walking in the way He has called us? Such is the example of Joseph who did not only believe in his heart but acted upon that faith to walk in God's way.
We know Mary's story so well we hardly need to hear it again to break out into her song and to ponder with her the grace of God shown to her and through her to us. But Joseph we do not know so well. Yet his story is an equally compelling story of justice, compassion, faith and obedience. He was a godly man, a God-fearing man, a man of faith. Now, as we come to the end of this Advent season and prepare to enter into Christmas, we face challenges to our faith, impediments to our joy, limits to our understanding, and tensions in our earthly relationships. Will we trust in the Lord as did Joseph of old. Joseph’s example speaks powerfully of the way faith plays out in the lives of God’s people. May we follow him as He followed the Lord. May we find place and purpose in God’s plan as Joseph did of old. May we learn faith and charity from Joseph, and see how to live out our lives of grace under the pressure of the world around us and our own hearts inside of us. Amen.