The mystery kept secret for ages, promised through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, is today revealed. This is the “Gospel of God” that Paul celebrates in today’s Epistle—the good news that “God is with us” in Jesus Christ. The sign promised to the House of David in today’s First Reading is given in today’s Gospel. In the virgin found with child, God has brought to Israel a saviour from David’s royal line and the spotlight falls on Joseph. On this last Sunday of Advent, before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man named Joseph. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.
Joseph is almost never front and centre. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off to one side. In Christmas pageants, we all know who the star is: Mary. When you think of Christmas pageants the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.
If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling.
But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So, when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first is to bring charges against Mary he could publicly accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty.
Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.
Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’
So, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? Matthew’s narrative fits exactly the character of Joseph.
The young Mary, when she had heard the announcement from the angel naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. The fruit of a lifetime of devotion to God’s law are eyes and ears attuned to the Lord. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us. When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.
The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Saviour and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a man like Joseph.
The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man and a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he followed it.
And when God spoke Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world. And this is amazing!
Just as God promised to be with Joseph, he promises to be with us, to always be with us. God’s word was enough for Joseph—is it enough for us?