Gospel Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
We know very little about Joseph. He is the foster father of Jesus and betrothed to Mary. He is from the line of David. He seems to be an upright man, considering divorcing Mary so as not to shame her. He is often pictured as being an older man. He had his own annunciation when an angel came to him in a dream and told him to see his marriage through. Like the Joseph in the Old Testament, he paid attention to his dreams. Once Jesus was born, Joseph protected his family by fleeing to Egypt with them. What can we learn from this man connected to God breaking into our history?
From Wm. Barclay: Daily Study Bible Series on Matthew, p. 22:
A betrothal was a binding agreement, lasting 1 year. The couple would be known as man and wife, but the marriage was not consummated until the end of the year. It could only be terminated in divorce. Going against this agreement could have meant death for Mary.
Joseph was told Mary was with child through the action of the Holy Spirit. We have a Christian view of what Holy Spirit is, but Joseph would have had a Jewish interpretation. What is that?
- Holy Spirit is who brought God’s truth to humanity, telling the prophets what to say and telling people what God wants of them.
- Holy Spirit allowed people to recognize that truth when they saw it.
- Holy Spirit is connected with the work of creation (moving across the waters).
- Holy Spirit is connected with re-creation (Ezekiel’s dry bones).
We know Joseph was a carpenter (Mk 6:3, Mt 13:55), and sons often took on the same role as their parents. The name ‘carpenter’ doesn’t exist in Hebrew, so he would have been known more as a ‘cutter’ or ‘worker of wood’. A rural carpenter would have been indispensable to the town where he lived. In addition to building homes, they would have made cabinets, carved, and made wheels, yokes and plows. Roofs were flat, so making a house would have involved laying down beams and covering them with reeds. If there was an upstairs, the staircase would be outside. For all of these projects, the carpenter would have had many tools and be flexible enough to work on whatever came into his workshop that day (Daniel-Rops, Henri, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, p. 241-3).
Joseph is often depicted as an old man, but we actually don’t know how old he is. The marriage custom at the time was that a young woman, essentially at the age of puberty, would be given to a man, usually several years her senior (Rolheiser, R., “Joseph and Christmas”. If Mary was 13 years old, Joseph may have been only 16-18 years old. What difficult decisions he had to make at such a young age!
What can we learn from Joseph? He teaches us how a person can be a pious believer, deeply faithful to everything within his religious tradition, and yet at the same time be open to a mystery beyond both his human and religious understanding (Rolheiser). Isn’t this what we are all challenged with at Christmas?
Joseph seems to live a life of quiet service to God, a life almost completely unknown to us. Today many Christians lead lives of hidden charity – a kind deed here, a few hours of service there. All of these quiet acts mark the Christian lifestyle. Even if no one else sees those deeds, God does (Catholic Update Dec. ’09: “The Holy Family”). Joseph teaches us humility.
Tradition holds that Joseph most likely died before Jesus started his ministry. Jesus must have wished for his counsel during those years, since he learned much about his faith from Joseph. Mary must have wanted his support at the Crucifixion (Cath. Update). Jesus and Mary knew grief through Joseph.
Take some time with Joseph this Advent!