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

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

Detail from "Appearance of Angel to St. Joseph" (also called "The Song of St. Joseph", c.1640) by Georges de la Tour. []

• 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 1196 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.


  1. Far to many fathers have lost the character and love of Joseph and have selected the Soul & Holy Spirit killing of Abortion.Their selfishness and love of this temporal world,and not the hereafter.The fear and loss of faith in God. Let alone the death of his Creation have driven over 60 Million Men & Women to listen to Lucifer instead of God.The great “What if” will never be known by these men & women.Eternity is a very long time.

  2. Thank you for this focus on St.Joseph , much needed in our times , that has lost reverence for Fatherhood , with the media esp. keeping intense focus on the errors of fathers .
    St.Thomas might have a point about the conflict faced by St.Joseph – there is the narrative about the miraculous budding of the staff by which Joseph was said to have been revealed as the intended husband for Mary , for the temple authorities who were also awaiting the Messiah , as much as they may not have anticipated that , it would be The Word Incarnate .
    Thus , likely that , Joseph could have struggled to know if he was any more meant as the husband for Mary ( he would have been familiar with the prophesy about the virgin birth as well, thus could have wondered if he was meant to be around
    anymore ) and as mentioned , God sends the angel , to the sleeping St.Joseph ..and we have another favorite devotion, to the sleeping St.Joseph , in the life of the Holy Father – 🙂
    Joseph , who gets to name The Lord , to thus also know , who the Messiah truly
    is , thus ‘ knowing ‘ better , who Mary is too , for the profound awe , at a much deeper level than what Zechariah would have experienced at the birth of John The Baptist , thus expressing that awe , in silence ..

    and we too can ask the intercession of this powerful saint , the ‘terror of demons’ , to guide us and fill us with Godly wisdom , to help us know better , all the ways that we too need to know The Son and The Mother , thus The Father too , in the ways we are meant to be .
    Blessings !

    • The whole narratives around The Ark, , esp. in the book of Samuel is also to
      help us , to better take in what St.Joseph would have been contemplating ,in trying to discern his place around the Blessed Mother and The Child . St.Joseph , given us from a mixed genealogy ,to help us all to thus identify with all of humanity , yet , he himself would have been aware of the unworthiness and judgments , from incidents such as when the Ark was with the Philistines , how they were afflicted – all such fears alleviated by the visit of the holy angel .
      Again, may the ministry of the holy angels and prayers of St.Joseph help us all too , to ask for mercy for all occasions and areas of debts and doubts , about the sacredness and dignity of our lives that our Lord comes to bestow upon us all . 🙂

  3. A reason to disagree with Saint Thomas Aquinas are the Gospel texts. Matthew. “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19). Matthew, a meticulous former tax collector, a man evidently concerned with details and facts seen in his introductory account of Jesus’ lineage. He was certainly familiar with Jesus, and likely Mary.
    The Church fathers who supported that interpretation were correct. Another example is the Angel’s message to Joseph. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife”. It’s the remainder of the angel’s declarative sentence that confirms Joseph’s belief Mary conceived illicitly, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1: 21).
    This was the exigent test of Joseph’s faith, and sense of justice. God further tested Joseph by sending an angelic message in a dream, rather than when awake and fully aware. How many of us follow what we dream regarding some vital matter? In other words Joseph, out of his great sense of justice, compassion gave the benefit of the doubt. That’s real charity, humility at its finest.
    Your account complete’ Joseph’s three exemplary motivations.

    • Following the angel’s revelation, Joseph made an act of faith [motivated by grace], invested with good will and humility. Once he assumed his role as head of the Holy Family, his now close association with Mary [most likely] convinced him [I’m confident on this] his act of faith was correct.

      • Pardon my continuing to comment, though it’s important to understand that both Mary, and Joseph assented to God’s will by acts of faith shrouded in mystery, and unknowing, that is, complete comprehension. Similar to Our Lord calling us [both clergy and laity] out of our ‘comfort zone’ to serve as his witness.

  4. Christ did not crash through the door into our world. Rather, he gently knocked, asked permission. He would not impose salvation, it required our freely given assent. That’s why both Mary and Joseph initially hesitated, an initial refusal, followed by deliberation and freely given assent.
    Mary, in her human perfection, reveals its limit compared to the supreme perfection of God. Bernard of Clairvaux bases his commentary on Mary’s assent on this initial reticence. Which doesn’t diminish her perfection, rather defines it. A just act has greater merit when we find it difficult, and reluctant to fulfill. Our resignation to fulfill what God asks is at greater cost to us thereby more meritorious. An act, as such, is given with complete freedom returning gift for gift in participation of our redemption.
    From the start redemption is thereby found in the way of the cross. Received with justice, endured in adoration.

  5. From: Von Speyr, Adrienne. Handmaid of the Lord: 2nd Edition (p. 65-66). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

    For Joseph everything is different. He is subject to the law of original sin, and he cannot help noticing the contradiction between the married state and virginity. The betrothal is for him a prelude to a normal earthly marriage. He is chaste and just; he lives in the spirit of justice inherited from his fathers. His chastity has nothing to do with the lackluster impotence that most pictures seem to give him. If he will have to make a renunciation, then his whole manhood will achieve it and will thereby be strengthened in its very masculinity. The intensity of his renunciation will give him the strength to keep growing within his mission. He will not stand languishing next to Mary; instead, he will stand beside her as a man who knows his strength but has sacrificed it in simplicity and generosity. His renunciation is made with strength and intensity and then forever concealed in silence. Everything is so thoroughly in order and so complete that the matter need never be spoken of again.

    In the betrothal, however, he experiences real feminine love, and this love of his bride enriches him as only feminine love is able to fulfill a man. In the light of this love, he sees before him the life that he is to shape for his family as the husband. He has chosen marriage in freedom and responsibility, and he will receive from God marriage and not the religious life. And within the married state God will impose abstinence on him. He is not removed to a cloister for this. He lives in his house with wife and Child, outwardly indistinguishable from other married men. In the midst of the world, he must learn abstinence.

    • Adrienne von Speyr was correct on this. Joseph expected a normal husband and wife relationship, but had the courageous faith to accept his calling of celibacy [and in similar context of chastity] as head of the Holy Family.
      Personally, I don’t believe that gift of feminine affection went beyond the spiritually emotive.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. St. Joseph’s doubt and the angel’s gift | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. St. Joseph’s doubt and the angel’s gift | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  3. The prayer that we breathe – Catholic World Report - Catholic World Report - On The Bosom Of Nature

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