Last night, Sunday 5 December, I was invited to preach during Choral Evensong at Christchurch Cathedral, Newcastle. Below is the text of my address:
In the lead up to the annual Festival of the Incarnation, we can sometimes tend towards the sentimental in our recollections. We can wonder at the journey to Bethlehem, at the birth of Jesus in a stable, the proclamation of the Incarnation by the heavenly choir, or the journey of the Magi who come from the East. All of these are wonderful parts of the great Christmas story, and have been embraced by our secular society as part and parcel of what Christmas means.
Yet, the significance of other parts of that story, a story that is at the very heart of who we are and proclaim ourselves to be as Christians, can often be overlooked. One such oft-overlooked part of the Christmas story is the role of Joseph as the husband of Mary, as step-father and guardian of Jesus, and as a just and righteous man before God.
On 8 December 2020, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the declaration of Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church, Pope Francis inaugurated a “Year of St Joseph”, a year which is now almost concluded.
In more recent weeks, Pope Francis has dedicated the catechesis at his weekly General Audience to reflecting on the place of Joseph in the life of the Church.
And tonight, here in this place, we have heard in our Scripture readings the role Joseph plays in the Incarnation, that great event of salvation history we are preparing to celebrate in just three weeks. Indeed, it is only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that we gain a glimpse into the life of Joseph and his contribution to the fulfilment of God’s promise that a Saviour would be made available to humanity.
Joseph is described in Matthew’s Gospel as a “just” or “righteous” man, someone who well knew the requirements of the Law of Moses that were central to the life of the People of Israel. Joseph is also from the line of David, which immersed him immediately in the expectation of the wider community of the eventual Messianic delivery that had been promised by God to God’s people.
And as a devout son of Israel, as a “just” and “righteous” man, Joseph would have willingly embraced the requirements of the Law and its precepts concerning marriage. While we have no recorded words of Joseph in the Gospels that allow us to understand his approach to living out his life, his actions speak volumes about how he interpreted the Law and how he applied it when it was necessary to do so.
The marriage customs of ancient Israel provide the context for the actions of Joseph we hear of in our Scripture readings tonight. It is important to remember that ‘marriage’ included two well-defined phases. The first was an official “engagement” or “betrothal” that changed the reality of the two individuals involved. While continuing to live in her parental home, the woman was already considered the wife of her betrothed spouse. They still did not live together, but she was, for all intents and purposes, already someone’s wife.
The second phase was the transfer of the bride from the parental home to the home of her spouse, accompanied by a festive procession involving family and friends. Only at this point was the marriage concluded. The completion could take up to a year to come about, but from the moment of betrothal to the moment of the arrival of the bride in the marital home, both parties were considered to be married to the other.
These customs around marriage provide the context for Joseph’s actions in the Gospel. The fact that “before they lived together, Mary was found to be with child” (Mt 1:18) raised the possibility of accusations of adultery. The penalty at the time for a woman found to be pregnant out of wedlock was to be removed from society, usually accomplished by stoning the woman to death (Dt 22:20-21).
We do not know how Joseph immediately reacted when the news of Mary’s pregnancy broke. His dreams of a life with the woman he loved and was betrothed to were now in flames. One can only imagine the anger and disappointment that welled up within the man of honour and righteousness.
We know that Joseph, being a “just” and “righteous” man, could have – and possibly should have – repudiated Mary for her apparent adultery. But within him, Joseph’s love for Mary suggested a way he could remain in observance of the law while also saving the honour of his bride.
Joseph, the “just” and “righteous” man, chose to repudiate Mary in secret, without making noise, without subjecting her to public humiliation. Joseph’s integrity and sense of honour meant that he would apply the law with generosity, with leniency, and with love, choosing the path of confidentiality rather than the way of scandal and gossip.
Yet that is not the end of the story, nor in one sense is it the real focus of the story.
Having resolved a course of action that he could adopt, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:19-21).
God’s voice intervenes in Joseph’s life, and Joseph becomes aware of a greater meaning than his own sense of justice. By God’s providence, Joseph is exposed to a deeper understanding of divine justice and its authentic demands, and his immediate response is to listen faithfully to the whisperings of God in his heart.
Joseph’s response, a response born of the same “just” and “righteous” identity that had originally prompted him otherwise, was to take Mary into his home as his wife, and to accept the responsibility of raising and protecting the child conceived in her who was the Messiah, the One who had been foretold for generations and awaited as a descendant of King David.
This was Joseph’s ‘Yes’ to God, a response driven by his identity as a pious son of Israel, that permitted God’s great plan of salvation to unfold as God had intended it to unfold. That ‘Yes’, like Mary’s ‘Yes’, even though it may have been difficult for them at first, embraced the reality God had placed before them, of a life that was not what they originally envisaged. That ‘Yes’ provided a freedom to live out God’s saving plan with a mature love expressed in the virtues of chastity, fidelity, respect and humility. These virtues provided Mary and Joseph with the means to discover the true joy and freedom that come from trusting in God’s just and providential concern for our lives.