St. Joseph’s doubt and the angel’s gift

On the Readings for December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent

• Isa 7:10-14
• Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
• Rom 1:1-7
• Mt 1:18-24

“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).

Although 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.

Yet 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 her—or, 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.

So 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.

The 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 Jesus—which means “Yahweh saves”—who will save his people from sin. Joseph would surely have recognized this as a description of the long-awaited Messiah. 

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.

Joseph, 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. 

Secondly, he 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.

And 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.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.