A few years ago there was a movie out; I think it was just called Jesus of Nazareth. It was in black and while and it showed in stark reality of the harsh life people lived in the Nazareth of Jesus’ time.
We know from Luke’s gospel that when the Angel Gabriel put before Mary God’s plan, to show that nothing was impossible with God Gabriel told Mary her barren cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. We’re told Mary went in haste to be with Elizabeth. Three or four months later when Mary came home to Nazareth her own pregnancy was beginning to show. This was a shock and scandal to the people of the town.
Life in those days is so far removed from life today. People married very young, at age 14 to 16 years. The fact of the matter is that less than 5 percent of the population lived beyond the age of thirty. Betrothal has nothing in common with our practice of engagement. Betrothal was the initial phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses were set apart for each other. In that ancient world, and in many places in our world today, marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families, not individuals. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. Both partners realized that their union was arranged for the financial well being of their extended families and having a family of their own to carry on the family name.
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. Adultery involved shame and harsh punishment, especially for a woman.
Joseph is faced with a horrible dilemma. Being a good and just man he didn’t want to expose Mary to public shame. He would divorce her quietly and hopefully get on with his life. That was not to be. A dream changed all that. Joseph believed in his dream, a dream that demanded so much from him. He married Mary and took Jesus as his own son.
The hero of this gospel should be Joseph. We know so little about him. He was from the tribe of Judah and the family of David, that’s why they had to go to Bethlehem to register. He was a carpenter, in other words a handyman who supported his family by getting odd jobs. When we hear the whole Christmas story, from Joseph’s dream until the birth of Jesus it seems the shepherds, the angels and the wise men get more press than Joseph.
In the list of prefaces for feasts we have 5 prefaces for Mary, one for the angels, one for John the Baptist and then, last on the list, one for Joseph. On his feast day the church praises Joseph as a just, wise and loyal servant. “With a husband’s love he cherished Mary and with fatherly care he watched over Jesus.” In a way we can imagine Joseph as the background music in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
In today’s gospel we see Joseph invited by God into the deep mystery of Emmanuel, God with us. Someone describing that moment when Gabriel came to Mary and placed before her God’s plan for her to bear His son claims that all creation, all creation held its breath waiting for her reply, ‘be it done to me according to your word.’ Can’t we imagine the same for Joseph? All creation holding its breath, waiting to see what Joseph, this young, good and just man, would do with his strange dream. Like Mary, Joseph opened his young life and his future to the mystery of God’s plan. In his own way Joseph said to God,’ Be it done to me according to your word.’
Actually this gospel is all about the transcendental origin of Jesus. Jesus is not the product of human evolution. Jesus is the intervention of the transcendent God into human history. This gospel affirms that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ and this came to pass because Mary and Joseph allowed this wonder into their lives.
But today let our thoughts and admiration center on Joseph, the good, the just, the protector, the provider. Through his intercession we pray that imitating Joseph, each of us open our lives, our futures to the will and way of God saying with as much commitment we can muster, ”Be it done to me according to your word.”