Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

Inspired by Matthew 1:18-25

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  Matthew 1:18-19 (NRSV)

By all accounts, Joseph was a good man.  Luke describes him as righteous, and in Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Christmas story he is always depicted as being gentle and caring towards his young wife.

Yet despite his righteousness and faithfulness, he still experienced hurt.  He was engaged to Mary, an arrangement that expected and assumed sexual faithfulness.  Yet before they were married his bride-to-be was discovered to be pregnant.  Surely Joseph felt deep hurt and betrayal.  According to the social customs of the time, Joseph was entitled to publicly disgrace her for her sin.  The laws of Moses even allowed him to demand her public execution.  Yet in the midst of his hurt and betrayal, Joseph was still merciful.  Marrying her was out of the question, certainly, but he would not humiliate and disgrace her.  He would simply let her go peacefully her own way.

Joseph is often celebrated for how he responded to learning the truth about Mary’s pregnancy.  He chose to join with her in raising this strange son who wasn’t even his own flesh and blood, and that indeed is worth celebrating.  However Joseph should also be celebrated for how he responded before learning the truth.  He didn’t let his feelings of hurt and betrayal lead him to seek Mary’s humiliation or destruction, even though the law and culture of his time expected such a response.  In the midst of his pain, he chose to be merciful.  God didn’t just choose Mary to be Christ’s mother; he wanted this man to act as his earthly father.

Let us pray.  God of mercy, you desire your people to be merciful.  Help us to follow Joseph’s example when we experience betrayal and disappointment, that we may end the vicious cycles of violence and retribution.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.