to be delivered on December 11, 2011–the 3rd Sunday of Advent
Picture this: You are sound asleep after an exhausting day working with wood and saws and tools. Suddenly you wake up and realize you just had this dream that makes no sense at all. You feel troubled, restless, and bewildered all at the same time. How come you had this dream? What does it mean? It seemed so real.
We all have fallen asleep after a hard day’s work, and we all have been awakened from deep sleep with a troubling dream. Yet I doubt that any one of us has a dream that comes near Joseph’s dream.
Remember the dream?
God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—’God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:
Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).
According to Matthew, Joseph knew that Mary was pregnant and had two options: divorce her or have her stoned to death. A choice like that would certainly be reason enough to go to sleep and have a bad dream, but this dream did not follow the two options. Instead it presented a third option, go ahead and marry her.
Understanding this situation Joseph was facing is almost inconceivable among us. Today’s culture does not reflect the same cultural standards as those in ancient Egypt. The region we refer to as Israel was where Joseph was living. The country was under Roman control and King Herod was ruling the region. The Israelites were still living in this region as Jewish people of faith, but they were subject to Roman law.
Life was focused on meeting the basic needs of the family and living a faithful, fruitful life as a Jew. The prophets kept telling that a savior or messiah or king was coming, but that promise had been heard for thousands of years.
What would make this year, 7 BC, any different that any other year? Why should Joseph think that he, of all the men in the Jewish faith, would be serving as a father to that savior? Why would God choose him?
Don’t you think that when Joseph got up that morning and walked out into the community, he looked a bit shaken! Did he have bags under his eyes? Maybe he had the proverbial “deer in the headlight” look or maybe he decided to stay home that day not wanting to run into anybody who might ask questions.
Joseph’s story is given very little space in the New Testament. The name is a common one throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. While looking up Joseph of Nazareth, the father of Jesus, the notations on him are exceptionally limited in comparison to the Joseph in the Old Testament, the one with the coat of many colors and brothers who sold him into slavery.
Yet reading the genealogy listed in Matthew, one can see that even the connection of these two different Josephs is considered important. The genealogy served specific purposes:
“In societies organized around kinship, genealogies serve as public records that document history, establish identity and/or legitimate office. The key to legitimacy and identity is a direct, irrefutable familial tie with the past.” . . . Genealogies were especially important in ancient Israel because the right to hold important offices was a hereditary privilege. For example, the priesthood was assured to the sons of Levi, while kingship was reserved for the descendants of Judah and more specifically for the son of David. “ (the Archeological Bible, p. 1559)
The parents of Jesus fulfilled both genealogical purposes. In Luke, the genealogy provides the biological connection from Mary to David while in Matthew the connection is the legal line connecting Joseph to King David.
But let’s go back to Joseph himself. I have always had this mental image of a young man, eager to marry a young wife and begin a new family all by themselves. Our culture has those subtle expectations of young people getting married for the first time—neither having had any sexual relations prior to the wedding. It never occurred to me that the arrangement between Joseph and Mary was any different than what our culture’s arrangement.
Looking back at the culture of 7 BC, I discovered that the culture was very different than what we are accustomed to here in 2011 AD. The term engagement we use when a couple commit themselves to each other is very different than being “pledged” in ancient Jewish culture. Not to mention that the decision was made by the parents rather than by the young couple independent of the families.
According to Jewish custom, the parents arranged the marriage of Joseph and Mary after which they are “pledged,” which meant that the arrangement was final and no intimate relationships could occur until after the marriage ceremony. Interestingly if the arrangement was broken or if some form of infidelity occurred, the man could divorce the woman. If there was a case of adultery, both the man and the woman would be stoned to death.
Another surprise I discovered was that the apocrypha* suggests that Joseph was older, had been married, had children and became a widower prior to becoming engaged to Mary. According to the culture, when he discovered Mary was pregnant, he had a choice of divorcing her or having her stoned to death.
Whether Joseph was older or whether he was a young man waiting to marry Mary as his first wife, the story does not change. Joseph was a man of faith—or as Matthew states, “Joseph, chagrined but noble,” was unwilling to cause Mary harm or embarrassment. After his dream, he chose to accept God’s message from the dream and remain with Mary.
In a culture where the men are leaders of the family, where the men control the household’s decisions, where the women were second class citizens at best, and where disgrace could lead to death by stoning, Joseph made a decision that transformed the world. He believed. He trusted God. He demonstrated faith.
Today, as we move one week closer to the celebration of Christ’s birth, lets take a mental snapshot of Joseph. Whether he is young or old, when he woke up after that dream, what do we see? We see a man who is willing to risk his own reputation and standing within the community because the angels in his dream told him how important the child Mary was carrying would be.
I think the picture we have would reflect a sparkle in his eyes, a bounce in his step, and a resolve in the set of his chin that demonstrated how God’s love could do anything. Joseph was chosen just like Mary was. God knew that despite all the possible obstacles the decision to stay with Mary and to rear the Messiah, a man of faith as strong as Joseph’s would help transform the world through the love demonstrated by his stepson Jesus.
Dear Heavenly Father,
In all the haste of preparing for Christmas,
Let us stop and thank you for a man of faith.
Thank you for Joseph, who was so confident
In your decision to have a son,
That he listened to the angels in his dream.
Help us to listen, even to our dreams,
As you tell us how to share our faith
Help us as our faith continues to grow
To know that we can follow your lead
Loving one another
And transforming the world.
*An interesting viewpoint: How old was Joseph?
Accessed on December 9, 2011 at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08504a.htm. This is a site which is also the Catholic Encyclopedia.
It is probably at Nazareth that Joseph betrothed and married her who was to become the Mother of God. When the marriage took place, whether before or after the Incarnation, is no easy matter to settle, and on this point the masters of exegesis have at all times been at variance. Most modern commentators, following the footsteps of St. Thomas, understand that, at the epoch of the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin was only affianced to Joseph; as St. Thomas notices, this interpretation suits better all the evangelical data.
It will not be without interest to recall here, unreliable though they are, the lengthy stories concerning St. Joseph’s marriage contained in the apocryphal writings. When forty years of age, Joseph married a woman called Melcha or Escha by some, Salome by others; they lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James (the Less, “the Lord’s brother”). A year after his wife’s death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Juda a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates; a miracle manifested the choice God had made of Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place. These dreams, as St. Jerome styles them, from which many a Christian artist has drawn his inspiration (see, for instance, Raphael’s “Espousals of the Virgin”), are void of authority; they nevertheless acquired in the course of ages some popularity; in them some ecclesiastical writers sought the answer to the well-known difficulty arising from the mention in the Gospel of “the Lord’s brothers”; from them also popular credulity has, contrary to all probability, as well as to the tradition witnessed by old works of art, retained the belief that St. Joseph was an old man at the time of marriage with the Mother of God.