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Of Advent, Joseph, Mary and Christmas

Kieran Fenn fms

I would like to take the forgotten figure of Joseph for our reflection with Advent just around the corner. Joseph was the husband of Mary, the man with whom she spent many years of her life, for better or worse. It would be hard to imagine a worse beginning for a marriage than the one they had. Matthew tells us that Joseph almost divorced Mary when he came to know that she was pregnant and the child was not his (Mt 1:18-24).

There has always been an uneasy feeling about this dramatic moment in the life of the Holy Family. Did Joseph really doubt his wife’s honesty? Did he think she had been having an affair? How long did he live in anguished silence, without knowing that the son she carried came from the Holy Spirit? Why did Mary not tell him, if no one stopped her from doing so? Why did God announce the virginal pregnancy to her only and not to Joseph? And why did Joseph want to abandon their relationship?

Marriage customs

Like the original readers of the gospels let us take up their first question: ‘What does it all mean?’ We begin with the matrimonial customs of the day. Jews married early – at the age of 18 for men and 13 for girls. The rabbis taught that ‘God curses the youth, who at 20 years of age, still is not married.’

Because of such youth, parents usually did the choosing, justifying the custom by saying that it was God in heaven who made the matrimonial union actual, 40 days before the birth of every child, and later informed the parents. In the beautiful book of Tobit the angel Raphael tells young Tobiah ‘She (Sarah, his yet unseen, future wife that he falls deeply in love with – sight unseen!) was set apart for you from before the world was made’ (Tobit 6:18).

Choosing was the first phase of marriage, and was named quidushin or ‘consecration’, a formal commitment wherein a maiden was consecrated to her fianc√¢ÀÜ≈°√ɬ†. They did not yet live together, owing to the girl’s young age and because the young couple hardly knew each other. Quidushin lasted one year; the two were regarded as a true couple and relations with another man would be seen as adultery. After a year the second part of marriage took place, the nissuin. This started with a great feast that lasted some days and ended with the young maiden being escorted to the house of her husband.

Between the two phases Mary became pregnant, while ‘given to Joseph in marriage’. We don’t know what happened between the couple; Matthew does not tell us. We can only imagine the anguish of Joseph; the inevitable suspicion of infidelity, yet God did not immediately spare him this sadness. And Mary herself must have grieved, seeing her husband suffer but staying silent because she was afraid of being misunderstood.

Imagination took over at this point with the apocryphal gospels, notably the proto-gospel of James, where the story becomes darker and more mysterious, with the test of bitter water (Numbers 5:11-31) being applied. Yet Matthew gives us a similar dark note when Joseph decides to abandon Mary, leaving her alone in the worst moment of her life. Why he decides this, Matthew tells us, is because he is ‘just’. An adulteress, according to Mosaic Law should be repudiated by her husband (Deut 22:20-21). ‘Just’ would then mean ‘obedient to the law’. The problem here is that the law went further and demanded an adulteress be stoned to death. How could Joseph be ‘just’ then?

Although Joseph seems to have no choice but to believe Mary had violated their marriage, and he knew the harshness of the law, he chose to abandon Mary rather than see her suffer, planning to do so secretly to spare her life. ‘Just’ would then mean the exercise of kindness and compassion. But this also offers difficulties because Joseph should not be called ‘just’ but only ‘kind and merciful’.

Another approach might be that Joseph knew about the mystery that surrounded Mary, that the child she carried in her womb was conceived of the Holy Spirit. He never believed that Mary had deceived him. Matthew begins his story with three facts:

a. Mary was betrothed to Joseph;

b. they did not live together;

c. she became pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

We often assume Joseph knew only the first two points, but why not the third? Joseph thinks about the dilemma; Matthew does not tell us that Joseph did not know the true circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. In fact, he does not tell us how Mary was told about it (only Luke has the annunciation of an angel). It is quite possible that Joseph and Mary came to know of it in the same manner.

Why a dream?

A last issue to address is why should an angel tell Joseph in a dream that the child Mary would give birth to was of the Holy Spirit, if Joseph already knew the truth? Part of the problem is incorrect translation of 1:20-21. The Greek gar and de translated as ‘forbear’ the meaning for ‘even though’. The message of the angel now reads: ‘Joseph, have no fear to take Mary with you, for even though what she has conceived comes from the Holy Spirit, she will give birth to a son to whom you will give the name Jesus.’

Therefore, what the angel revealed to Joseph was not the child’s origin from God (he knew that already), but God’s wish that he name the child, an action that in Jewish law made the child legally his own, gave Jesus his Davidic origins, and implied that Joseph remain with Mary. From a decision to free Mary from her betrothal to himself and not take a child as his own that was not his but God’s, Joseph is moved into a position where he finds himself chosen, along with Mary, in God’s plan of salvation. His life then moved from disturbance to peace.

From a sad and colourless geriatric Joseph, we now have the Joseph of the gospel. He never doubted his wife, and understood the situation, not wanting to be in the way of God’s plan. God desired and I am certain Joseph wanted to be at his wife’s side always. Mary and Joseph loved God and each other as a couple. They were a grace to each other, together since the beginning, and are together in eternity. He is a wonderful companion for Advent and Christmas, this wise husband of Mary and source of Jesus’ Davidic identity.