Summary: This Advent, take St. Joseph as your model and follow God's will without reserve.
Fourth Sunday of Advent 2013
Jesus, Mary & Joseph
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, be with me now and at the hour of my death.” Here in this first scene from the Gospel of Matthew, traditionally the oldest of the four Gospels, we hear a story that must have been passed down for at least forty years on Joseph’s side of the Holy Family. Those of us who have grown up with the touching story of the greatest family in human history–Mary tending the hearth, Jesus learning carpentry from his father, Joseph–get a little uncomfortable with this part of the Gospel. From St. Luke we know that Mary spent the first three months of her pregnancy with her cousin, Elizabeth, tending that older relative through the birth of her son, John. Mariam–that was her Hebrew name–returned to Nazareth and disclosed that she was to bear a child, a son, and her tale was pretty incredible. It involved an angelic visitor and a promise that–without a male partner–the Holy Spirit would bring forth from her a boy who would be the King of Israel forever. Joseph knew Mariam to be level-headed and holy, but this story seemed to be way too much for anyone to swallow. So, rather than hold his betrothed wife up to scandal and maybe execution, he resolved to divorce her privately and be done with all of it. Then he gets a messenger from God who confirms absolutely everything Mariam has told him. Joseph takes Mariam to wife–without any marital intimacy–and acknowledges the child as his son, and therefore a descendant of King David.
The story tells us, as St. Luke did, that the child would be named Yeshua–we call Him Jesus–because through this child, God–Yah–would save us–shua–from our sins. The child’s very name is “The Lord saves.” I don’t know what Joseph had expected out of life as he was betrothed to Mary. Likely the best he could have anticipated was to use his carpentry skills to build one of Herod’s palaces or cities, stay out of the way of the Romans, and care for Mary, who for some godly reason had decided to remain a virgin. The events of those months shattered whatever expectations Joseph had. But he listened to Mary and the divine messenger, and, like Mary, attuned his will to the will of God. The outcome, we all know, was the salvation of the world!
So many dreams are shattered by the sledgehammer of reality. Those of us who have seen five or six or seven decades of life have surely seen many crystal-clear expectations become broken glass. The worst of these experiences involve the bad results of our poor choices. A “surefire” investment guts a life savings. A whirlwind romance leaves a broken heart, and perhaps a surprise pregnancy. A thoughtless word leads to a rip in a friendship. A passion for an advanced degree, or a new home, causes a couple to delay and delay and delay having children, until the pain of delay causes a breakup, or the wife’s fertility disappears. Too often our sufferings are a result of our own negligence or self-centered behavior. As the old comic strip said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
It’s reasonable to see that kind of disappointment as our just desserts. But when we are good, prayerful, and listening to God, and we ask for something that we just know is correct, and our plans go all to pieces anyway, that’s hard to understand. So let’s go deeper into St. Matthew’s story and see if it will help us cope with those messed-up dreams.
The key word in today’s Gospel is translated here as “righteous.” Joseph is a righteous man. In our ears, that means he was a stand-up guy. But there is no one word in English that captures the essence of this adjective. The Gk is dikaios, which probably translates the original Hebrew tzadiq. It really means that Joseph was a “living saint.” He, like Mary, always strove to do the will of God. Yet he found himself with a pregnant wife, and he wasn’t the cause. His intention was to do the lawful thing, which would have been the wrong thing for the fulfillment of God’s plan. When he got confirmation from the angel of what God wanted him to do, he subjected his will to God’s will. His plans were shattered, but the greatest good resulted.
There’s more to the story. We know from the Gospels that Joseph protected Mary and Jesus after His birth, shielding them from Herod’s murderous rampage by taking them to Egypt. We know that Joseph helped raise Jesus, took Him to synagogue school, gave Him a trade, so much so that Jesus was evermore known as “the carpenter’s son.” I like to think that Mary and Joseph’s example gave us the phrase we say every day in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” Joseph disappears from the Gospels before Jesus begins His ministry, so the ancient tradition that he died in the arms of Mary and Jesus before that time is almost certainly factual. But whatever Joseph’s intentions for his life, whatever his expectations, attuning himself to the will of God led him down a far more eventful and glorious path.