The Fourth Sunday in Advent - Year A
When describing events in and around the birth of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from the perspective of Joseph the carpenter. The New Revised Standard Version of the bible, from which we just heard, states he is “engaged” to Mary, but this rendering is somewhat misleading. A more accurate translation states they are “betrothed”, but very few today understand what this entails.
In Jesus’ day betrothal is a legally binding relationship resulting in marriage, usually twelve months later. Sometimes the groom states a preference for a particular bride, but more often the match is made at the discretion of the parents. During betrothal the future bride (often a young teenager) continues to live with her parents and the couple does not engage in sexual relations. They use the time to get to know one another and adjust to the idea they will become husband and wife. There are occurrences of a bride moving into a groom’s home prior to the marriage through a ceremony known as a “home-taking”, but this continues to be a period of celibacy.
When the times comes for the wedding, the groom and his companions process to the bride’s home to escort her and her party back to the groom’s house for a celebration which might last as long as a week. At a certain point during the festivities the bride’s father draws up a marriage contract after which the couple goes to a “bridal chamber” to consummate the marriage.
Something significant unfolds during the time Joseph and Mary are betrothed. She becomes pregnant and he knows he is not the father. There are only two possibilities. Either Mary had a consensual relationship with another man or another man forced himself on her. Either scenario releases Joseph from the betrothal. Either opens Mary to shame, disgrace, and the potential of being stoned to death. Most likely Joseph believes Mary has been victimized, which accounts for his desire to shield her as much as possible from the consequences of being pregnant. That Joseph embraces a third possibility after a dream is truly remarkable. The couple – she pregnant – remains betrothed.
Matthew tells us Jesus is born in Bethlehem. He provides no details about the couple travelling there from Nazareth to be registered for a census. All he says is that Jesus is born here. He says nothing of a stable, angelic chorus, or shepherds watching their flock. These details are found only in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew alone tells of the Magi’s visit. They find Mary living in a house with Jesus being a small child, most likely not yet two years old. Neither Luke nor Matthew provides details of Joseph and Mary’s wedding and surrounding festivities. Whatever occurs takes place after Jesus is born and most likely is a subdued affair given all that has transpired.
Omitting the miraculous conception, we still have no way of knowing how many betrothals in Jesus’ day are as complicated as this one and we have no way of knowing how common or uncommon Joseph’s response is to it. What we do know is the culture’s general attitude about wives. They are property and belong to their husbands, who generally regard them primarily as reflections of themselves. Thus, more than a betrayal, Joseph (as a product of his culture) must have held Mary’s pregnancy to be a stain on his own reputation and social standing. A typical man of his era would think primarily about how her pregnancy diminished him.
Matthew tells us Joseph is a “righteous” man. I hear in this he has appropriated all the best of his tradition while rising above its limitations. Yes, he is a product of his times, but he is better than his times. Rather than acting ego-centrically (What does this mean for me? How does it reflect on me?), he subjugates himself in order to think first about what he can do for Mary. And he does this even before an angel comes to him in a dream.
Fast-forward to our time where we are conditioned to ask of any situation “What is in it for me?” “How will I benefit?” “How will it enhance the ways others think me?” “How will it bolster the way I think of myself?” Joseph’s example invites us to ask new questions: “What does this situation need?” “What do I have to offer?” “How might my personal sacrifice make things better for another?”
Let’s call these “Joseph Questions”! They are questions we ask when we see ourselves in a new relationship with all around us. Over the course of Advent we have described this new perspective through the metaphor of a cosmic song of praise. Each of us is part of a choir whose membership includes every created thing. Now we can choose to sing our part much like the soprano I remember in a church choir long ago who used her powerful voice to drown out every other person and section. Or we can sing in harmony under the leadership of the Choir Director who has created us all and called us together. We can always push for our advantage or, like Joseph, we can act in ways to enrich one another.