Is. 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-24
JOSEPH, A MAN OF HONOUR
A careful look at the gospels shows that there are actually two ANNUNCIATIONS
about the birth of our Lord Jesus. First, there is a recorded Annunciation to Mary
(Lk 1:26-38) by the Angel Gabriel. The other account is the Annunciation to Joseph
which can be seen in Matthew’s gospel (Mt 1:18-24), and which constitutes the text
of today’s gospel. Here, an angel announces the good news about the birth of Jesus
to Joseph in a dream. Today is the last Sunday of Advent. I would like that we reflect
on the role of St. Joseph in the history of our salvation.
1. DOING JUSTICE TO ST. JOSEPH
In scripture and history, St. Joseph seems to be a very underrated person. Even the
New Testament does not seem to do justice to him. We do not find any statement
credited to him anywhere in the New Testament or anywhere else in all history for
that matter. We have no reason, of course, to assume that he could not talk or he had
nothing to say.
All the same, from the little that the bible says about him, we can infer that he was a
truly great man. A great person is not always the one who makes the loudest noise.
All too often, in the course of history, truly great persons have passed almost
unnoticed, only for their real worth to emerge after they have gone.
2. THE TRUE GREATNESS OF JOSEPH
The greatness of St. Joseph lay in the role that God assigned to him; and he played
it perfectly. His role was to be the protector of the incarnate Son of God and his
Virgin Mother, Mary. Christian Tradition calls him the “foster father of Jesus” and
the “chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary”.
In those days in Palestine, the penalty for a woman getting pregnant out of wedlock
was death by stoning, much like what we hear often in some parts of the world where
the Sharia Law has been put in place. If Mary could not explain the source of her
pregnancy, she would have been liable to that penalty. It was most unlikely that her
townspeople would buy the story of the Holy Spirit being responsible for her
pregnancy. It is even doubtful that they knew anything about the Holy Spirit. For,
the One who was to reveal the Holy Spirit to the world had not yet been born; he
was still in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Therefore, God chose Joseph to stand in
the stead of a father for Mary’s child. That was the message that the angel of the
Lord brought to him in our Gospel reading of today. And how well Joseph played
his God-given role!
The reason why God chose Joseph from among all other men was, according to our
Gospel passage, that he was “a man of honour”. That is to say, he was what we
would call today “a perfect gentleman”. Although Joseph believed that keeping the
law was doing the will of God, he bravely stepped out onto a higher road to discern
God’s will. He neither conformed to the law – to expose Mary — nor quietly put
her aside. Being such a man of honour, he did not wish to humiliate Mary, his
betrothed. Rather, he wanted to spare her publicity and divorce her informally. The
conduct of Joseph shows what true uprightness is. The just man is not a man who
seeks only what justice demands or a person who demands his/her own personal
rights (“his/her pound of flesh”), but one who knows how to temper justice with
mercy. Joseph could have had Mary charged. He could have had her condemned to
die by stoning. But he chose a course of action that would spare her life and dignity
in the given situation.
It takes a special courage for rule-keepers to stretch as Joseph did. We need only
look to bureaucrats in any current institution to see how difficult it is for them to get
past the letter of the law. Rule-keepers fear that if life is not codified, then chaos will
prevail. Joseph, the carpenter, crafts a creative response of love in a world of law.
The moment the angel told him in a dream how Mary came about her pregnancy,
Joseph asked no further question. We are told that when he “woke up, he did what
the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife home.” All that made
him a perfect choice for the role God had for him. And therein lay his greatness.
3. THE EXEMPLARY LIFE OF JOSEPH
a) True, Joseph was not the biological father. But the messiah had to be of David’s
royal line, “…Who according to the human nature he took was from the
descendant of David…”— (C.f. 2nd reading of today: Rom 1:3). In ancient Israel, a
child’s clan was determined by that of his father. Therefore, it was Joseph who
legally bound Jesus to the house of David. It was because of Joseph that the family
had to go to Bethlehem for the census, that the prophecy might be fulfilled.
b) God carefully selected the woman who would be the mother of his Son. But he
must have been equally careful in his selection of the foster-father. For genes are
not the only thing parents impart to their children. Jesus, in his humanity, had to
grow in wisdom, age, and grace (Luke 2:52). Joseph must have been responsible for
a good deal of this growth. It was Joseph who was Jesus’ male role model. From
Joseph, Jesus learned many things, including the trade that he would practice for
some twenty years.
c) There are even more important things that Jesus learned from Joseph. Being a
just man, an honest man, a courageous man, a man of integrity, Joseph readily
imputed the “public guilt” of Mary unto himself. His betrothed was pregnant but
not by him. Imagine the shame, the hurt, and the anger that he must have experienced
assuming what anyone would assume in such a situation. His integrity would not
allow him to marry an adulteress and pretend the child was his. Neither would he
expose the woman he loved to shame and punishment. He did not procrastinate or
waffle. In spite of his painful and honourable decision to divorce Mary quietly,
Joseph made a leap into the dark by taking Mary for his wife, just at the simple
request of the angel.
d) Again, although not being the biological father of Jesus, Joseph was a true father
to Jesus. When Jesus was found in the temple, Mary said to Jesus, “Your father
and I have been looking for you.” (Luke 2:48). We can imagine the love and
affection between Joseph and Jesus, and between Joseph and Mary. We can imagine
Joseph’s pain at the poor circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We can imagine the pain that
he must have suffered when Simeon told Mary that Jesus would be a sign that would
be opposed and that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul (Luke 2:34-35). We can
imagine the pain Joseph suffered when he had to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt for
safety to preserve their lives. What greater love could Joseph show Mary and Jesus!
e) Joseph’s claim to fame is also HIS FAITH. In spite of his personal fears after
being told the unbelievable (“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary
your wife into your home,” (Mtt 1:20)), he dared to believe. His response of faith
entailed taking action – he changed his plans, received Mary into his home, and
accepted responsibility for this special child. Keep this in mind, though, that Mary
needed no revelation to be sure this was a virginal conception. All Joseph had to go
by was what he received from an angel, in a dream. What an ACT OF FAITH! As
if the 70 mile walk to Bethlehem with a pregnant woman was not enough, the angel
came a third time and told Joseph to make the long trek to Egypt for fear of the
Divine Child’s life. He acted again without complaint. St. Paul says “We walk by
faith, not by sight” (1Cor 5:7). St. Joseph is a model of faith because he keeps
walking, even in the dark.
The story of Joseph proves that it pays to be nice, to be considerate, to show concern
for other people’s feelings, their reputation, their good name and image. Joseph did
all that with regard to Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. In
that way, he made an immense, unique and indispensable contribution to the saving
mission of the Messiah himself. The Messiah needed an earthly “father”. Joseph
provided one. What a man of honour indeed!
4. OUR OWN PLACE IN GOD’S PLAN OF SALVATION
Today’s readings trace the lineage of Jesus, in order to show us our own place and
role in God’s plan. In the second reading, Paul reminds us of the promises that came
through the words of the prophets. Here, he highlights three very important facts.
First, he reminds us of Christ’s divine origin and nature: “This is the good news
about Christ, the Son of God.” Second, he reminds us of Christ’s human origin and
nature: “…Who according to the human nature he took was from the descendant
of David…” All these were to assure us that Christ is really the promised Messiah.
The third fact is about our relationship to Christ. That is, how we fit into God’s plan,
and his economy of salvation: “You are one such nations, and by his call belong
to Jesus Christ.” Through this, Paul reminds us of our heritage Christ.
The gospel narrative tells us “how Jesus was born.” Like Paul, Matthew in his
infancy narrative traces Jesus’ linage back to the dynasty of king David. This is also
meant to assure us (as Paul did), that Jesus is really the promised messiah. It
highlights the very important and central role played by Mary and Joseph. They were
God’s instruments for fulfilling His mission of salvation for us. This teaches us that
God is active in our history and lives, and that He comes to us through human
In today’s gospel, Joseph had all the excuses for not taking Mary to be his wife. In
fact, he had decided to divorce her quietly but in the end he obeyed and did as the
angel of the Lord commanded him. “Saint Joseph is a man of great spirit. He is
great in faith, not because he speaks his own words, but above all because he
listens to the words of the Living God. He listens in silence. And his heart
ceaselessly perseveres in the readiness to accept the Truth contained in the word
of the Living God,” Pope St. John Paul II had once said. As we expect the coming
of the Messiah, we pray that each one of us may make him/herself available as a
worthy instrument for God’s service. Let us be ready to cooperate with God as Mary
and Joseph did, in order that the promises of God might be fulfilled through us.
Is. 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Matt 1:18-24