Today’s reading contains a most curious verse: “Joseph her husband; since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” It clearly says that as he was righteous, which at its core meant law- abiding” he would not take Mary as his wife. Yet he did, does this mean that he forfeited being considered Righteous? For many of his contemporaries, it would. To understand this why we need to step back a bit.
For Judean Jews of the first century, there were two stages of marriage. The first was the Betrothal. Families would arrange a marriage between two very young people. This was a formal engagement, but the girl would still live with her family until she was ready to start one of her own. They were husband and wife, but the marriage was not completed until she was brought into the family of the husband. This was called the “coming together”. Mary’s pregnancy occurred during the betrothal and thus Joseph, as a law-abiding Jew, could not complete the marriage. This was adultery, which was a capital crime. The Jews were ethically advanced and however much they condemned adultery knew that execution was too extreme and developed a way to avoid it. The husband could divorce his wife and spare her the penalty for adultery. This was Joseph’s intention for which he would have been held truly Righteous, law-abiding and merciful.
Yet he did indeed marry Mary and for us proved himself even more righteous. It is important to remember that Matthew wrote to Jews or at least people who understood Judaism and needed to show them that he was righteous in their terms as well.
Return to the first Joseph. He was called the dreamer because God revealed much to him in dreams. So too with Joseph of Nazareth. An angel told him that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he should take her into his home – complete the Marriage. His decision was not because of his own mercy or even love of Mary but came from God himself. It was part of the divine plan. Matthew, as we will see throughout this year, will show that an event is part of the plan of salvation by connecting it to the OT. Here, he quotes from Isaiah “Behold, “the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” (Isaiah 7:14) This originally foretold the birth of a righteous king 7 centuries before the birth of Jesus, but Matthew does not want an exact fit. He will always show that Jesus is more than a fulfillment of a prophecy. That God would save us by becoming one of us is beyond our understanding and imagination but could be seen in shadows from a Jewish perspective.
Joseph fits in this plan not only for his obedience but for his pedigree. The angel addresses him as “Son of David”. The section before today’s gospel reading is the great begats, so and so begat so and so, etc. Joseph is named a descendant of David. God promised David that he would never abandon his line and that this was interpreted that the Messiah would come from it. He is now fulfilling that promise. We call Joseph the foster father of Jesus but for both Jews and Romans Joseph was the legal father of Jesus, he claimed him and thus Jesus became his son and heir. Here again, Jesus fulfills the promise but goes beyond it.
Joseph went from confusion to absolute certainty and became righteous in a way that he could not previously have understood. We should expect the same, whenever we have a real experience of Jesus, we will leave more righteous but almost inevitably in a way we would never have expected.
A virtue of age is that older people can look back at the most destabilizing times of life and see that although they were never pleasant many had long-term positive effects, and looking at them in the rear-view mirror, they were from God. Speaking for myself I believe that without situations which at the time seemed bleak I would not have the trust in God that I have today. I did not have the benefit of angels and dreams but nonetheless, received a sense that I should continue with a difficult course even if it did not seem sensible at the time.
This is also true for institutions and groups, most especially the Church. The Synod is an obvious example. This year we as Church Members were asked what we thought was important for the future. Pope Francis understood that the church was stuck and needed to start moving again. Many questions were raised from married and women priests, to the death grip of clerics on the levers of power in the church, to who is welcomed and who is not to communion. The list continues and not I would imagine to the Pope’s surprise. Yet the point was not simply or primarily to address them but to open ourselves to the same spirit which allowed St Joseph to find his way. This scares many people of course but it is necessary, and we are blessed to be called to participate. To resist would be like telling Joseph that we are sorry Mary is pregnant
Catholics ask for Joseph’s intercession when buying or selling a house or working on property. As we work on the interior of our church this year, we will beseech him often. Yet, we must remember that he protected the Holy Family and that as we await signs of where the whole Church is going and what the Holy Spirit is asking of us at St Charles, we have no better patron and guide. May he intercede that the painting of our church building goes well but far more that we as individuals and as a community become Righteous as he was Righteous.