As the calendar year draws to a close and Christmas looms large before us, the Church begins a new liturgical year. Instead of focusing on all the decorating and gift-giving, Advent provides us with a time to slow down and reflect on the true meaning of the coming of Jesus. I always enjoy rereading the Scripture passages leading up to the nativity and listening to the sacred music of the season. We tend to consider Mary and her “Yes!” and rightfully so. She was so open as to dedicate her whole being to God, taking on the responsibility of motherhood to Jesus.
This Advent, as I prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Emanuel, I find questions welling up in me:
What about Joseph?
How did Joseph feel when he found out that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant?
What did he go through in making his decision to say yes to marry her anyway?
The Scriptures tell us very little about Joseph. Matthew 1:19-25 describes Joseph as a “righteous man” and “unwilling to expose her to shame.” So, what does that really mean? I turn to Ignatian Contemplation for some clarification, reading the passage several times, slowly, and imagining myself with Joseph as he discerned his future. I want to share what I learned in my experience, relaying Joseph’s story through my imaginative prayer.
The words broken, hurt, and betrayed come to mind. Yes, Mary comes to Joseph and tells him that she is pregnant–with some strange story about an angel and conceiving by the Holy Spirit. I can feel the pain in Joseph’s heart. I can see his anger. This does not make any sense; how can this be?
Here he is, a well-respected man, from the lineage of David, and his betrothed is going to have a child that is not his. Could his sweet, young Mary be unfaithful, or did someone force himself on her? Either way, this pregnancy brings dishonor, not only to her family but, if the truth was discovered, on him as well. What should he do? Joseph needs time to be alone, to think, and to pray.
Taking a walk to clear his mind, he begins to think rationally. If he honors Mosaic law, Joseph has every right to end his union with Mary for reasons of adultery. In fact, it could be argued that he must. Yet the punishment for such an offense is death by stoning. He certainly does not want Mary’s death on his conscience. Should he shame her and humiliate her family? No, Joseph is unwilling to expose Mary to shame. Maybe he can quietly divorce her and save everyone the embarrassment. Yes, that seems to be the best solution and one Joseph can live with.
Exhausted from the stress of the whole situation, Joseph tries to rest. Deciding he will take the appropriate actions the next day, he falls fast asleep. There, deep in his dreams, he hears a voice and feels a presence. God’s own messenger is right there before him, telling him the same strange story Mary has relayed. It is actually true! God has chosen faithful Joseph to be the stepfather of Emmanuel. God’s will includes no divorce for him and Mary. Instead, Joseph will take Mary into his home as his wife.
Joseph awakes with a start. He has a full and comforting awareness of a new calling: to be a father, a husband, and to love Mary and the baby as his own. Gone is any doubt; it is replaced with humility and new purpose. Filled with confidence and faith in God, he readies himself and heads off to tell Mary the news.
We can learn a lot from Joseph’s faithful decision. Mary’s pregnancy was certainly not what Joseph planned, leaving him frustrated, confused, and even angry. Yet, because Joseph had such a strong faith in God, he prayed through his discernment. He did his best to interpret the best outcome, but God wanted something else, and Joseph was open to listening and understanding.
Life does not always go according to our plans. We wait with great anticipation for something special to occur, only to be disappointed when things do not work out the way we thought. We can choose to respond in anger or frustration and feel sorry for ourselves. We can try to resolve the situation by ourselves with all our human limitations, or we can faithfully pray, opening ourselves to God’s will and the possibility of an outcome far beyond our imaginings.
- Consider praying with Joseph’s dream using the prayer method of Ignatian Contemplation
- For further reading on Joseph:
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