Opening the Word: Joseph’s righteousness

In the final days before we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we encounter Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew. Joseph is in the line of Abraham (cf. Mt 1:1-17). Abraham is the one chosen by God among all the peoples of the earth: “‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’” (Gn 12:2).

Could Abraham have known how great his name would become through all the earth? That from his lineage “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is 7:14). From Abraham’s obedience generations ago, the very savior of the world will come forth.

And now Joseph takes up the role of Abraham. He is betrothed to Mary, not yet living together. Marriage began in the ancient world through a period of engagement that concluded with the reception of the bride into the bridegroom’s house.

But this marriage is different: “Before they lived together, [Mary] was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). Joseph could have jumped to the obvious conclusion: Perhaps his bride-to-be was unfaithful. He could have been jealous, angry, wanting to expose his fiancée to the punishment she deserved.

Joseph does nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even presume that Mary had sexual relations with another man: “Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19).

To be righteous, like Joseph, is to conform the entirety of one’s will to God’s. With the pregnancy of Mary, Joseph discovered a mystery that he was not seemingly a part of. God’s will, made manifest in Mary, did not include Joseph (at least he imagined).

Joseph must have known about the miraculous births that took place at the beginning of Israel’s history. God kept the covenant with Abraham, giving him his beloved son, Isaac. Isaac, like Jesus Christ, is born outside of normal circumstances. His mother, Sarah, was well into menopause, unable to give birth naturally (cf. Gn 17:17).

So, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly. But like his namesake in the book of Genesis, Joseph has received the gift of dreams. While asleep, the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her’” (Mt 1:20).

Joseph has now been written into the narrative. In the Gospel of Luke, it is Mary’s story that we hear, her fiat, her will offered entirely to God.

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In Matthew, Joseph, too, gives his fiat: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt 1:24).

Joseph is not just righteous. He is the tender one that receives, in silence, the Blessed Virgin and Jesus into the home. He is truly Mary’s husband. He is truly Jesus’ foster father, who keeps watch over the Holy Family out of the depths of love.

The wonder of the Incarnation is revealed in Joseph’s righteousness. The salvation of the world takes place through what seems like a normal family, a husband and a wife keeping their mystery hidden from the world.

And it is this hidden salvation, which we will celebrate in one week’s time, as we cry out: Today is born our savior, Christ the Lord.

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.