“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” St. Matthew starts out pretty plainly there, but it’s a setup – what follows is anything but simple. Mary is pregnant under mysterious circumstances Joseph is unwilling to treat her harshly; angels visit Joseph in a dream, of all things; and then somehow all this works out and a Child is born – they name Him Jesus.
This is not an ordinary story nor a simple one, but Matthew sums it up in a few sentences. And though Matthew presents the story as a narrative of how Jesus the Christ was born, in so many ways this passage is really a character study of Joseph, one of the most heroic if least mentioned people in the Bible.
Now, “it would be wrong to consider betrothal as similar to our idea of engagement before marriage. Betrothal was the initial phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses were set apart for each other. Though a betrothed couple did not live together, a formal divorce was required to break the public establishment of the betrothal. Sex with a betrothed woman was considered adultery.”1
Though we can’t be sure that Mary and Joseph were in this type of arranged marriage, it would be strange if they weren’t, and so we can assume it. And so at some point Joseph’s father (I don’t assume Joseph was old, despite the Hallmark paintings of him) offered gifts or services to Mary’s father in a bid to win her for Joseph. Mary’s father would have made the final decision on the marriage, but it was usually the women of the families who negotiated the contract, which was then ratified publicly by the two fathers. Even though many marriages appeared to be not much more than financial arrangements, this did not mean that couples didn’t like or love one another, or that at least some marriages weren’t arranged sort of after the fact, so to speak.
However Mary and Joseph got together, by the time Matthew picks up the story, they are betrothed but not yet living together, so the contract was done but the marriage was not yet celebrated or consummated. Now, if you remember the story from Luke, as soon as Mary consented to carrying the Christ Child, she took off to help her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist; Mary would have returned to Nazareth about three months later, and it probably wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that she had something to tell the village.
The Child is not Joseph’s, this is certain. “By law, Joseph is entitled to return Mary to her father and expose her to death. Numbers 5:11-31 describes the ordeal Mary would have to undergo (and it’s not pretty, nor would she necessarily live through it). But Joseph is an honorable man and determines to divorce her leniently. His sense of honor hopes that the rightful father will seize this opportunity to claim the child and marry Mary. In all of his decision, Joseph acts very honorably.”2
That doesn’t mean Joseph was happy about any of this. His whole world was turned upside-down. The angel who visits his dreams doesn’t really make things easier – Don’t be afraid, marry the girl, the kid is God’s own. What?!? I can’t imagine Joseph woke up and just went “Oh, alright,” and went about his day.
“Whatever he may have felt, as an earthly father he must have died a thousand deaths caring for that woman and child, both of whom he had accepted in faith as belonging finally to (God rather than to) himself.”3 For his service, Matthew called Joseph a just man, honorable in all things, the provider and protector of God’s own.
The example of Joseph gives us the lesson that being extraordinarily blessed, being even in the physical presence of the Son of God, can and often does come with hardships. The old phrase saying that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is a load of crap; no one can actually handle what Joseph and Mary were given to do. It is only by trusting in God, through hope, and in acting with great love, that any of us can take on the good works that God has given us to do. As we approach Christmas, to meeting our Lord once again at the manger, how will we respond when the Lord appears to us? Will we be called just?
3John Kavanaugh, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvA121816/theword_embodied.html