A Man for All Seasons

"Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus." (Matt 1, 19-21)

The leader of a certain Indian tribe encamped at the base of a mountain was dying. The chief summoned his three sons and said, "I am dying and one of you must succeed me as the head of our tribe. I want each of you to climb our holy mountain and bring back something beautiful. The one whose gift is the most outstanding will succeed me." After several days the sons returned. The first brought his father a flower which grew near the summit and was extremely rare and beautiful. The second son brought his father a stone which was colorful, smooth, and round, having been polished by rain and sandy winds. The third son's hand was empty.

He said, "Father, I have brought nothing back to show you. As I stood on top of the holy mountain, I saw that on the other side was a beautiful land filled with green pastures and a crystal lake. And I have a vision of where our tribe could go for a better life. I was so overwhelmed by what I saw and by what I was thinking that I could not bring anything back." And the father replied, "You shall be our tribe's new leader, for you have brought back the most precious thing of all : the gift of a vision for a better future." (Wharton)

The biggest gift that someone can give you in life is a future, a vision for a better future. The conviction that tomorrow can and will be different. This is why, I believe, the Church presents to us Saint Joseph, just five days before the big event, before Christmas. And she presents him to us in one of his most agonizing moments in his life.

Critical moment

He was still young, engaged to a girl, Mary. For all practical purposes he was married to this girl even if they were not yet living together. As you may know, there were two stages in a Jewish marriage. The first stage was the formal exchange of consent, made at home of the bride's house. The second stage was the actual wedding, made some months or years later, when there was a big feast during which the bride was transferred to the house of the groom.

The incident of this Gospel happens in this intermediate stage. When Mary returns from Ain Karim where she went to assist Elizabeth, Joseph immediately realized that she was pregnant. Anyone can imagine the shock, the trauma, the feeling of deception. He still does not know the meaning or the cause of this pregnancy. He just sees her pregnant. He must have felt terribly betrayed by the person he loved most. The tradition of the Church tells us that Mary was so respectful of the relationship between God and Joseph that she did not tell him anything - she felt she could not tread in this holy ground. This made obviously things worse for Joseph. And, let's face it, even if she told him, he would not have believed her... angels and Holy Spirit and hallucinations. Give me a break! Everyone knows how babies come!

What shall he do? He had three options. The first one was to expose her, to say clearly that he had nothing to with it, let her face the consequences for what she did. 'I wash my hands.' The outcome for Mary would have been grim, very grim. The Law was clear. Deuteronomy chapter 22 states, "If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death". Joseph, probably out of consideration of Mary, decides not to take that road. He does not want revenge.

The second option was to take her as his wife, cover everything under the mantle of marriage. Give his name to the baby which is not his, make it look as if the bay is his. The only problem was that this would put him in a bad light. People would think that he had got her pregnant, that he is all goodie goodie on the outside, but basically he is rotten and dirty. Remember that Nazareth was a small town where gossip was rampant like all small towns. He decides against this option - why should he take upon himself a blame, an onus for something he did not do?

The third option seemed more plausible. Dismiss her quietly. Take her to some other town and let her lose herself in the anonymity of the crowd. No one would know anything and everything will be hushed up quietly and discreetly. Obviously this would solve many problems for him, but it would not solve many problems for Mary. Yet, he opts for this third alternative.

However God intervenes and says no. He tells him to go for the second option : "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid, to take Mary your wife into your home." Give your name to the child even if he is not yours. Even if you will be branded as an unreliable guy. Later on, the enemies of Jesus would try to smear him by saying just that : "Is he not the son of that carpenter" the sneaky guy?

Intelligent non-logical reaction

Joseph found himself in front of a mystery, in front of something he could not understand, something which was not of his own choice or liking. Many times we also find ourselves in front of events which are not of our choice or liking. A sickness, the sudden death of your wife, the alcohol problem of your husband coupled with his manic-depressive moods or you find yourself without a job and you are in your fifties. This woman was writing me telling me how something very deep in her died for ever when she was physically abused by a person of trust when she was fifteen. "Every third week of the month I have no more money left", this other woman, crippled, was telling me. "Then I have to eat peanut butter sandwiches and beans until the next check arrives." So many things we do not understand. Emotional problems which we have been carrying since our childhood. ...

What did Joseph do? What can we do?

Joseph listened and then he simply obeyed. He did not resist the events which God was presenting him. Pope Paul VI said of him something very dear : "he does not debate or dispute with God".

The moment this young man finds himself involved in a mystery which is bigger than him, he gets mixed up and feels confused as all of are mixed up and confused when problems crash on us. But he did one step forward. He realized that God knew what He was doing. He realized that God cannot do mistakes and he trusted. Dr. J. A. Hadfield, noted British psychologist, commented on this when he said, "When people run up against life and find it too much for them, one swears, one gets a headache, one gets drunk and one prays"

In life many times we want to control everything, we want everything under our own leverage. At home things have to go my way, at work things have to please me. We want to direct our history, our life and the lives of those around us. This make us and them suffer immensely. And it kills God in our lives. There cannot be two gods, two axis in a wheel. If I put myself in the center, God has to walk off...

Joseph decides to let loose. He decides to let God take over. He passes the remote-control in the hands of God...

The reason of our hope

Joseph realizes God is able to create good even out of this absurd situation. God is good, Joseph reasones. He can't give me bad things. So, he throws himself completely into the project which God is planning. Even if it means losing control for ever. "Even if I do not understand God understands and that is enough for me" - this is how Joseph reasoned.

"Do not be afraid", the angel says to Joseph. "Do not be afraid" the Church constantly repeats to us. Why not? Why shouldn't I be afraid? For two simple reasons. Because Isaiah says : "And his name will be Emmanuel, which means God is with us" And because the angel says ".. and you are to name him Jesus", which means God saves. Jesus is equivalent to Joshua, the leader of Israel who destroyed all the enemies of the people when they entered into the promised land.

This is the reason of our hope, this is why we can face life without being afraid. Not because we are strong - we are weak. Not because our problems are small - our problems may be big. But because we have a God, THE God, as our ally. And He is an invincible hero!

The more Joseph we are in our life, the more life tastes better.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.