Detail from "The Dream of Saint Joseph" by Francisco de Zurbaran (1635)
Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
“Looking on thee, O Unwedded One,
and dreading a hidden wedlock, O Sinless One,
the chaste Joseph was riven in mind with a storm of doubts…”
That is how the anxious state of Joseph was poetically described by the unknown author of the great Akathist hymn
(c. 6th century) to the blessed Virgin Mary as he considered what to do
with his young and pregnant betrothed. Joseph, following the usual
Jewish practice, had been covenanted to Mary; their betrothal was, for
all intents and purposes, as legally binding as marriage. According to
Jewish law, this meant the betrothal could only end in one of two ways:
divorce or death (Deut. 24:1-4).
devotion to St. Joseph has grown tremendously in recent centuries, it
is still easy to overlook both the tremendous decisions he faced and the
great character he demonstrated in making those decisions. Today’s
reading from the Gospel of Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous
man”. This is not some vague reference to Joseph simply being a nice
guy, but is a direct recognition of his whole-hearted commitment to the
Law. “And it will be righteousness for us,” said the Hebrews at Mount
Sinai, upon being given the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, “if we are
careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has
commanded us” (Deut. 6:25). Joseph was careful to follow the
commandments; he desired to love and serve God completely.
he was faced with a gut-wrenching, scandalous situation: a young bride
who was already pregnant. However, Joseph was “unwilling to expose Mary
to shame” and had decided to divorce heror, better translated, “to send
her away quietly”. Some of the Church fathers and doctors believed that
Joseph had suspected Mary of adultery. Others thought he had withheld
moral judgment, being genuinely perplexed by the strange situation. And
some, including St. Thomas Aquinas, believed Joseph knew of the
miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy from the start, and had sought to
separate himself from her because of a deep sense of unworthiness.
we don’t know what Joseph knew prior to the angel of the Lord appearing
to him. Rather remarkably, we also don’t know what Joseph may have
said, simply because not one word that he uttered is recorded! But we do
learn some important things from the words of the angel, as well as
from Joseph’s actions.
angel provided Joseph with three essential gifts and truths. First, the
divine messenger granted him the gift of peace: “Do not be afraid to
take Mary your wife into your home.” The coming of the Lord is always a
gift of peace to those who love and serve him.
Secondly, he told
Joseph there was a divine plan in place: Mary will give birth to
Jesuswhich means “Yahweh saves”who will save his people from sin.
Joseph would surely have recognized this as a description of the
Finally, the angel provided the prophetic
background to this stunning event, the passage from Isaiah 7, today’s
reading from the Old Testament. This would have further reinforced the
reality of the divine plan.
in turn, did three things. He thought, first and foremost, about Mary
and her wellbeing. He acted justly, without concern for himself, even
though he had every legal right to be upset. A good husband puts the
needs and reputation of his wife before his own.
placed his trust and hope in God’s promise. Although we never hear any
words from Joseph, we are told of his actions. A godly man walks the
talk, but with a minimum of talk!
Third, Joseph embraced the
daunting task of being the foster father of the Son of God. Why? Because
he trusted in God despite the strangeness of the situation.
what is the conclusion of the verse of the Akathist hymn quoted above?
“…but learning that your conception was of the Holy Spirit, he cried
out: ‘Alleluia!’” Alleluia, indeed!
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 19, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)