Holy Night, Holy Family

“When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,  but before they lived together, she was found with child…Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame,  decided to divorce her quietly.  Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” Matthew 1: 18-20

Thrice this particular passage has met the ears and eyes of those following  Advent’s readings, and I find myself with newfound awe and respect for St. Joseph.  Consider what goes unspoken in those sparse sentences, “read between the lines” and see the plight of the man chosen as foster-father of the Lord…

Imagine Joseph’s feelings of betrayal, to find his betrothed with child.  Joseph was no fool, he knew the course of things.  Think how bitterly deep it must have cut him, not only to see her with child, but to suddenly have an ulterior explanation for her swift departure to Elizabeth’s house, and 3 months lingered there.  Then she returns, protesting her innocence and virginity, claiming it is a child from the Holy Spirit.  Can anyone blame Joseph for wanting to divorce her?  For not believing her? 

I dare say most of us would scoff at outlandish claims of “virgin birth”.  Better for her to have claimed rape than to insult Joseph’s intelligence–or worse, arrogantly blaspheme the Lord (that she should claim she is Isaiah’s prophesied virgin)! 

How torn his mind must have been, to know in the heart her goodness and humility, and know in the mind that her claim casts that humility into doubt.  I cannot fathom Joseph’s pain and uncertainty. 

 That he insisted on not shaming Mary publicly, and also wanted–warring within himself–to protect her from stoning…what self-sacrifice that must have required.  Thank God for holy men.  Jesus’ protection of the woman caught in adultery was likely inspired by the memory of  the foster-father’s darkest hour, and Joseph’s unfailing regard for Mary.  

What else did Joseph teach the Son? 

Was it Joseph’s lesson we hear echoed in Jesus’ words, “take up your cross daily, and follow after [God]”?  Surely Joseph knew some would look on him with pity and shame for the rest of his days.  “Poor Joseph, shamed by that unfaithful girl.  Foolish man, blinding himself to the truth.” 

And then the dream comes.  The angel of the Lord confirms Mary’s claims and proves her purity.  Was that a relief, or another cross this humble carpenter carried?  In the coming years did he ever wonder, looking on the Christ child, if his dream truly was from God?  If this son he loved was really the bastard of another man, and his wife a liar? 

This man we know now as “Terror of Demons” almost certainly waged such war in his mind and heart, if infrequently.  What better patron from whom to learn the discernment of spirits? 

Whatever doubts and demons he may have fought, history tells us Joseph took Mary as wife, and cared for her and Jesus until his dying day.  In the joy of the birth, we gloss over the sorrow-tinged circumstances which led, nonetheless,  to the Holy Family’s union.  

However untrue they were proven, the legitimate feelings of betrayal and deception could not have been a great start for a marriage.  Talk about having obstacles to overcome, or “things to work through”!  And yet by God’s grace and the virtue of those involved, they became the model for all families, so much so we seldom consider the suffering, and instead see their great unity and joy.    Joyful mysteries indeed…

I wonder how many “dysfunctional families” and “separated” couples could learn volumes on love, family life, and joy from patient Joseph.  Thank God for the Mother and Son, and thank God too for the example of Joseph, for all those who would be loving and holy fathers.   Would that we all protected and placed our wives and children before our fear, our shame, our pain, and let love rule the day. 

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