ADVENT IV - A - 16 MATTHEW 1. 18-25
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph…” Thus Matthew introduces us to blessed Joseph, the foster father of Our Lord.
Joseph takes a backseat to most Christmas traditions. Luke’s popular version of the birth of Christ has Joseph in a supporting role. But for Matthew, writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, Joseph is a key player because of his linage from David.
According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to a young Mary and announced she would become the mother of God’s son. Mary accepted her role in God’s divine plan and casting aside her fear sang her response to God in the church’s earliest hymn, the Magnificat.
In contrast, Joseph’s role was announced to him by an unnamed messenger of God while sleeping. But before the angel appeared to him in a dream Joseph found himself in a dilemma. He was engaged to Mary, but suddenly she was pregnant.
Mary told Joseph how the angel had appeared to her and announced that God had chosen her to be the mother of his son and that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. It wasn’t that Joseph didn’t believe her, but would anyone else?
Joseph wrestled with what to do. Should he accept Mary’s explanation and go forward with the marriage, or should he spare her public ridicule, possibly even stoning, and divorce her quietly? Betrothal in Palestine was a binding agreement as much so as marriage and required a divorce if it were to be annulled.
Matthew says Joseph was a righteous man; meaning he would do the right thing by Mary even if it meant disregarding his own reputation and standing in the community. It was a tough call for him to make. He was committed to Mary, but this was an unusual circumstance.
People would understand if he chose to divorce her. His reputation and standing in the community would remain in tact. But what about Mary? What would become of her? What would the people think of her pregnant and unmarried?
He was leaning towards dismissing her by breaking the engagement. But decided to sleep on it as we say. While he slept God’s messenger spoke to him “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her 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.”
When he awoke he knew what he was to do. He understood who the child was and what he would become and what he would mean to the world. Joseph accepted his role as both protector and provider for Jesus and Mary his mother with steadfast devotion. He would do his best by both of them.
Joseph would be the one to teach Jesus how to be a man, to work with his hands. As Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph would be the one who would teach him the Jewish religion and take him to synagogue and Temple, and teach him to pray. He would set the example for Jesus to follow, in terms of manhood, like any good father would do.
The name God had given this child literally meant “he shall save.” In Hebrew, Jesus was the same as Joshua who brought the Israelites into the promised land after the death of Moses. Matthew sees Jesus as the one who will rescue his people, not from slavery in Egypt but from the slavery of sin.
There had been no tradition of a Messiah who would save from sin. This Jesus, however, would be different. What is unfolding in Jesus is God’s plan for the redemption of mankind. But blessed Joseph would not live to see it fulfilled.
By contrast, the name “Emmanuel,’ (God with us), mentioned in Isaiah was an explicit claim that in Jesus prophecy is being fulfilled, for this name was given to no one else. Matthew’s whole gospel is founded on its meaning ‘God with us.’ At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus promises that he will “be with us” to the close of the age (28.20).
Faith teaches us that God is with us, oftentimes in the most unexpected ways. God’s actions, however, are always aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight. God takes the initiative and does things that people regard as inconceivable, like the Virgin Birth.
As we patiently await the lighting of the Christ candle and the filling of the crèche we honor Joseph’s obedience in accepting his role in the Holy Family. Many a manger scene and live nativity, have Joseph standing passively in the background. But he didn’t remain passive. He took his role in God’s divine plan to heart.
He sang no beautiful hymn in response to God’s call, as did Mary, he simply did as God directed him. He took Mary to be his wife and became the foster father of Our Lord. He overcame his fear of what people might think and protected the virtue of his bride to be. As Matthew said, he was a righteous man.
What of us? God has called each of us to be part of His divine plan; a plan that continues to unfold. We are here as members of God’s family, the Church, the Bride of Christ, in anticipation and preparation of Christ’ coming again. Having been marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism, our role has been defined for us; to declare and manifest Christ’s Incarnation by the way we live our lives in obedience to God’s call to us.
May the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ grant us the grace to follow the good example of his servant, blessed Joseph, both in his obedience and his devotion to fulfilling God’s role for him. And if, by his example we are so moved to sing in response to God’s call to us in this present Advent season, let it be a verse from the ancient hymn we traditionally use to open our period of waiting:
“O come thou dayspring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel.” (Vs 6, Hymn #56) AMEN+