Welcome to the fourth and final part in our series on Advent! Every Monday the blog post of the day focused on Advent. We hope they bring you many blessings as you prepare for Jesus’ birthday and His second coming!
Written by: Raphael Ma
In these last days leading up to Christmas, I thought it would be beneficial to look at another person’s experience of the first Advent: St. Joseph.
For the vast majority of us who are so familiar with Christmas – if not from our families, even the imagery in the culture at large – there is no real “surprise”. But for St. Joseph, Christmas was a surprise. Probably the biggest surprise of his life. I propose this – let’s try and enter into St. Joseph’s rather unconventional experience of Christmas, and perhaps it may shed some light on the way God is working in our lives this Christmas and how we might respond to Him.
First, who was St. Joseph? For us Canadians, I think this is a relatively important question – since he is the patron of Canada, and the largest church in Canada is dedicated to him, that mysterious and miraculous shrine, St. Joseph’s Oratory, in Montreal. As you already know, there isn’t a lot about St. Joseph in scripture. And the interpretation of the little that is there leaves some room for debate. Let’s look at his age. How old was St. Joseph when he married Our Lady? We simply don’t know. Depictions of St. Joseph in the early Church portray him as a young man. But from the 4th century until even today, St. Joseph was portrayed as an old man. This likely began in opposition to heresies that arose in the 4th century that denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Of course it is possible that St. Joseph was way older, but that poses a bunch of problems – how could he have supported Our Lady and Jesus as a carpenter at that age? How could they have made those long trips to Egypt and back? Who would have really thought, as they say in the Gospel, that he was the father of Jesus? The customary marrying age for Jewish men at that time was somewhere between 16 and 24. I’m going to assume that St. Joseph was a young man for the purpose of this article.
Ok, so Joseph is in his late teens, early twenties. The Gospel tells us that he was a carpenter by trade, and married to Our Lady. Now the Gospel tells us they were “espoused” / “betrothed”, but it’s not the same as being “engaged” as we understand it today. The way Jewish marriages worked at the time was first they exchanged their wedding vows – the espousal, and sometime later, they celebrated the wedding festivities – the marriage (like at Cana), and only then did they begin to live together. Even though they resolved to live a virginal life, they were actually married as we understand it, because they had exchanged wedding vows. Again, we don’t know how or when they made this decision, but the unanimous, unbroken tradition of the Church is our witness to this matter. This sounds difficult to our modern ears, perhaps because society puts the focus of your vocation almost entirely on yourself, and doing what you want, especially when it comes to marriage. But to St. Joseph and Our Lady, marriage was not a private thing that only concerned themselves, rather, it, like all vocations, was public, and not only for their own good, but the good of the community they lived in, and a part of God’s plan of salvation. Unlike us, looking back at Christmas, before the annunciation (they were already betrothed when it happened), this blissfully married couple has NO idea what was about to happen to them. Perhaps at this point, it was a honeymoon period in their lives. They were finally grown up, and about to set out on the exciting adventure of their perhaps seemingly weird vocation, consecrated to whatever God had in store for them.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 1:18].
Ok, WHAT? Put yourself in St. Joseph’s workboots/sandals for a moment. Your world has just exploded. You have consecrated yourself to virginity for God, and your wife, also consecrated to virginity for God, is *pregnant*? What thoughts could have been going through St. Joseph’s mind? We don’t know. The wild variety of suggested answers to this question throughout the history of the Church at least attest to the turmoil that St. Joseph must have felt. To what degree St. Joseph knew the amazing truth about who his wife really was? I think we can at least say that he couldn’t have not noticed there was something very different about Our Lady. I personally can’t imagine him questioning her innocence, though it’s possible he may have been tempted to. I also can’t imagine Our Lady not telling St. Joseph. So at some point she must have told him exactly what the angel Gabriel said to her. Yet, this was unheard of. It is possible, that St. Joseph, torn between what he felt and what he believed, simply didn’t know what to do.
“…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” [Matthew 1:19].
A “righteous/just man” in scripture is someone who is essentially a saint. Someone who has all the virtues, who is living his or her life for God. And that includes being faithful to the Law of God, which at that time was the Law of Moses. According to the Old Covenant, there were really only two options for him – to accuse her publicly based on the fact that she was pregnant and he was not responsible, and so have her put to death, or to give her a bill of divorce. The external evidence made both options real options for him, but unlike the Pharisees of his time, St. Joseph was not a man of mere externals, nor someone who was about to use God rather than serve Him. So he planned to do the only thing he knew was in accord with God’s will, no matter how much it would cost him personally – to send away his wife, the Blessed Virgin Mary, by giving her a bill of divorce.
And yet as we know, God never abandons His servants, although it certainly feels that way at times. God broke into St. Joseph’s world again to help him.
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” [Matthew 1:20-21].
And with that backstory in our minds, how much more tremendous does this news become! This is not merely another plot element in a story, this was the answer to the questions that were tearing St. Joseph apart. And through this experience, God powerfully confirmed St. Joseph’s vocation. It is almost as if God said to him: Do not be afraid, take Mary as your wife, it is My will, and though the Child is not yours, it is also My will that you be His earthly father (naming the child was the right of the father).
God has a role for each of us in His plan, at every moment of our lives, even though sometimes it just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.
Recommended from Catholic Chapter House:
The Life and Glories of St. Joseph by Edward Healy Thompson
Joseph of Nazareth (DVD)
Advent, Christmas, The Saints, by Catholic Chapter House.