Fourth Sunday of Advent: St. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of Advent: St. Joseph

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 23:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we read St. Matthew’s Gospel in which the role of St. Joseph is brought into focus. In order to understand the situation in which Joseph found himself, a little background is needed. He was betrothed (in Hebrew, ‘qiddushin’ meaning consecrations) to Mary, Our Lady. In Jewish culture at that time, this had a greater significance than the modern day equivalent of an engagement because it carried with it the legal and moral effects of marriage itself. During this time of betrothal the bride-to-be lived with her parents – in Mary’s case with Saints Joachim and Anne. It was only at the celebration of the wedding that the wife would be led in procession to her husband’s house after which time they “came together” [RSV Mt 1:18].

We are not told in Matthew’s Gospel or any other for that matter, how Joseph discovered Mary was “with child”. Perhaps Mary told him and tried to explain; perhaps it was through an intermediary; perhaps he realised it by himself? Regardless, the situation no doubt appeared bleak initially. There were – seemingly – two possibilities to explain Mary’s pregnancy: either Joseph had lacked the self-control to remain chaste before the wedding, or Mary had been unfaithful. The former would have been a cause of shame and reproach on both Mary and Joseph; the latter was more serious still for the penalty for a “betrothed virgin” lying with another man was death by stoning [Deut 22:23-24].  The stakes were very high indeed.

How does Joseph navigate this crisis? As a “just man”, he decides he will end the relationship discreetly by divorcing Mary. He did not seek the retribution for which the law provided – being “unwilling to put her to shame” – but, in the midst of this dramatic scene, he displayed a kindly disposition. St. Thomas Aquinas and others have interpreted this disposition as a sign that he realised that somehow God was behind all of this – perhaps there was a third possibility after all?

Even so, “Why me?” “Why would it have to be my wife who became pregnant, and leave me in this quandry?” I suspect Joseph uttered such words or words to a similar effect. The answer, of course – as Joseph discovered by the message of angel in a dream – is that it was God’s plan. It was God’s plan that Joseph, the “son of David”, the heir to the Davidic promise, would be the Father of Jesus. It was God’s plan that Mary who had already been conceived without original sin would be His Mother. It was God’s plan that His son would be named “Jesus” (Jeshua) meaning “the Lord saves”. It was God’s plan that He would save His people from their sins. And all this was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s oracle, God’s plan foretold.

As if Joseph wasn’t bewildered enough by Mary’s pregnancy, he now learns that the Father of Mary’s child is God Himself, and that he, Joseph, is to be guardian. The human mind boggles at such an awesome message, a breathtaking responsibility. Certainly, it was not for nothing that the angel said to him, “do not fear”.

Joseph’s example is a remarkable one. He was, in every sense but biological, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and husband of Our Lady. In the remaining days of Advent, in our contemplation of how our Saviour came to be born, all of us might reflect on Joseph’s witness and role in the history of salvation. Pope Benedict XVI encouraged this devotion: “meditation on the human and spiritual journey of Saint Joseph invites us to ponder his vocation in all its richness, and to see him as a constant model for all those who have devoted their lives to Christ in the priesthood, in the consecrated life or in the different forms of lay engagement.”

Sancte Joseph, ora pro nobis.

Joseph’s Dream, Gaetano Gandolfi (c.1790)

Samuel Burke OP

Fr Samuel Burke is based in St Albert the Great in Edinburgh, where he serves as a university chaplain.

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