Can you imagine? You are engaged to be married and you find out your fiancé is pregnant, and you know the child is not yours. That’s pretty much what Joseph was dealing with. Now-a-days, a scandal of this kind would be worthy of prime-time reality television. In those days, an adulterous woman would get stoned to death. As we continue to prepare our families for the coming of Christ, let's look at how Joseph, our patron saint of fathers and families, handled this apparent crisis in his relationship with Mary.
Almost everything we know about Joseph comes from Scripture. We know he was a carpenter because that is how the skeptical Nazarenes described him. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” We know he was not wealthy because, when Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised, all Joseph could offer for the sacrifice was two turtle doves; this was allowed only for those who could not afford a lamb. In the Gospel, the angel greets Joseph as the son of David. So we know that, despite his humble work and means, Joseph came from the royal family of King David.
We know too that Joseph was a compassionate and caring man. When he discovered that his bride was pregnant, he knew the child was not his. Rather than accuse her of adultery, which carried a death sentence, Joseph decided to divorce her quietly, so as not to expose her to shame or cruelty. And we know that Joseph was a faithful, obedient man. He followed God’s commands in taking Mary into his home, in naming her child Jesus, in raising Jesus as his own son, and in fleeing his home to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus from King Herod who intended to kill him.
The Gospel describes Joseph as a righteous man. Not self-righteous. A person who is self-righteous believes he or she is always right and claims to be morally superior to everyone else; someone we would say is holier-than-thou. Anyone who claims to be “holier than you” is not. But a righteous person, like Joseph, is good and decent, fair and just, and humble and obedient to God.
The Gospel says Joseph was betrothed to Mary. We know that betrothed means to be engaged, but in modern times, engagements can be broken without legal action or consequence. Back in the day, however, being betrothed to someone meant so much more, and a formal divorce was required to terminate the engagement.
In those times, before a man and a woman were betrothed to each other, their families would arrange the marriage through negotiations between family representatives. When an agreement was reached, the arrangement was binding upon both the groom and the bride, and they were considered married in all legal aspects except that of actual cohabitation.
A couple who was betrothed then had to wait at least twelve months before completing the marriage by what is called the “home-taking”, that is when the groom gets to pick up his bride and take her to live in his home. During the engagement period, the groom was supposed to be getting his act together, like preparing a house suitable for the new family.
In some cultures, marriages are still arranged and dowries are still required. Dowry is an ancient custom involving the transfer of property from the groom’s family to the bride, or from the bride’s family to the groom, depending on the culture. This past summer, my son and I spent some time together in Cameroon, Africa on a mission. There we learned that many marriages are still arranged between families. The elders of two families negotiate the dowry or a price for the bride. A typical dowry might be $4,000 cash, and 2 cows, 6 pigs, 20 pounds of coffee, and 200 pounds of sugar. The idea of the dowry is for the groom’s family to reimburse the bride’s family for the cost of her upbringing.
The engagement period is then used by the groom to get the dowry together. When the dowry is delivered, it's shared with those in the village who contributed to the bride’s upbringing, and only then then is the bride released to the groom with her family’s blessing. Amazing, but this is still the way marriages are arranged in some parts of the world.
As some of you may know, my daughter is betrothed to her fiancé Adrian. He's a wonderful young man but, let me tell you, had I been to Africa before their engagement, I might have tried to negotiate one of those dowries before I gave Adrian my blessing! Let’s see, maybe I can start with reimbursement for the tuition we paid to TCU?
So, when the Gospel says that Mary was found with child while she was betrothed to Joseph, we now appreciate the full implication of what that means. Poor Joseph. Surely, he experienced shock and surprise, betrayal and resentment, pain and disappointment. But, Joseph, the model of true manhood, did not react the way many of us might have reacted. Rather than make a plan for vengeance, Joseph made a plan to protect Mary, while quietly divorcing her. How many divorces have you seen where the spouses go out of their way to protect each other from the impact of divorce? Far too often, we see War of the Roses where they go out of the way to hurt each other. Or worse, they use their children to manipulate each other, with no regard whatsoever to the harm they are causing to their children.
I was once in court waiting my turn and watched a divorce case in front of me. After they put on evidence about who did what to who, and who should get primary custody, and who should pay what to who, the wise judge told them…I’ve heard enough to be satisfied that there is no reasonable chance of reconciliation and I will sign your decree of divorce. But let me make something clear. A decree of divorce is going to terminate the legal relationship between the husband and the wife, nothing more. A decree of divorce is not going to terminate this family, because your family was created by God, and there is nothing this court or any court can do to change that. So continue to treat each other like the family you are. I wish my parents had heard the same thing when they got divorced.
When our relationships start to fall apart, the Church gives us the tools to help us reconcile, and we should look to the example of Joseph, who was prepared to do everything in his power to protect the one whom he thought had betrayed him. Joseph was a righteous man and while he knew that the Law of Moses called for Mary to be punished, Joseph was also a merciful man, and he knew that the Law of Mercy compelled him to forgive Mary and to ensure her safety and wellbeing.
Thankfully, Joseph’s initial belief that Mary had stepped out on him was way off. And when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him Do Not Be Afraid to take Mary into your home, Joseph was faithful and obedient to all that God asked of him.
With the cooperation of Joseph, the sign promised to the House of David in the First Reading, is fulfilled in today’s Gospel. The promised savior is born. The Son of God becomes the Son of Man so that we too, by entering into communion with the Word made flesh, might become adopted sons and daughters of the same God. In the Eucharist we are about to celebrate, the eternal covenant is renewed, and the Advent promise of a virgin with child is made real – God is with us.