A dream changed Joseph’s life and ours.
In the Gospel reading for Sunday we hear that, in a dream, an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to proceed in taking Mary into his home, even though Joseph has discovered Mary is pregnant– and not by him.
Before they lived together, Mary was found to be with child. Joseph, being an upright man and unwilling to shame her, decided to divorce her quietly but an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid; the child in her has been conceived through the Holy Spirit.
Don’t be afraid?
In Biblical culture marriage was a sacred act, a participation in God’s own fidelity and it appeared that Mary had broken with that fidelity. Everyone could see that Mary was “in a family way” even though she and Joseph had not yet lived together. Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness carried a grave social stigma. Joseph not only had the right to divorce Mary— under Jewish law she could be put to death by stoning.
Why would Joseph trust a dream? Who exactly is this Joseph?
Joseph is clearly reminiscent of the Joseph of the Exodus story; the latter too has a dream, he too goes to Egypt, and he too saves his family. Likewise King Herod is clearly the counterpart of the Egyptian Pharaoh; both feel threatened and both kill the Hebrew male children only to have God protect the life of the one who is to save his people.
Joseph of the Christmas story is presented to us as a “righteous” man, a designation that implies that he has conformed himself to the Law of God, the supreme Jewish standard of holiness. Joseph is a paradigm of faithfulness and goodness, which he demonstrates by refusing to expose Mary to shame. Furthermore, however strict in observance of Jewish law and custom he may have been, Joseph is nonetheless ready to make these subservient to the greater law of the Spirit. His reconciliation with Mary, even in the face of possible slandering and humiliation by his neighbors, and his self-sacrifice now and later, after the birth of Jesus, reveal why Joseph was found worthy to fulfill the great trust and responsibility given to him by God. It is not easy to entrust your children to someone else. Imagine God looking down to choose a man to raise his own son. Joseph had God’s trust.
Mary’s pregnancy, her trust and faithfulness, exposed her not only to legal penalties but also to suffering and shame in her society. One might wonder why God would allow Mary to go through this? Why didn’t he spare her the shame and suffering?
Mary’s steadfastness and trust in God in the midst of uncertainly and shame is a model for us and a preparation for her. At the foot of the cross, Mary will again find the greatness of soul to trust God in the midst of the shame of having her son die the shameful death of crucifixion.
Human greatness, as exemplified by our Lord, Jesus, has at its core, fidelity through shame and suffering. The greatness of Christ on the cross is foreshadowed by this young couple: shamed but faithful.
Is the incarnation of God an impossible dream; a tale reserved for children? This Gospel passage urges us to find the roots of trust and courage within ourselves as Joseph did. Let us pray for the trust and faithfulness of Joseph and Mary and proceed in faith.