Some years ago, the award-winning comic strip by Johnny Hart featured a piece about the mystery of the Incarnation, though it did not mention the word. It is more of a whimsical commentary on modern man and woman. It is relevant at a time when the public commemoration of Christmas, the Nativity of the Lord, is again challenged everywhere by those who protest that their sensibilities have been offended:
It seems to me that since the Fall–
without even thinking it odd
that man had no trouble at all believing that he can be God.
How he would do this I cannot conceive ...
tho, he certainly thinks he can–
and yet, he cannot bring himself to believe that God can become ... a Man.
As Joseph of Nazareth was drawn into the mystery of God becoming man, he too pondered what this could mean. On discovering that Mary, his spouse, was carrying a child not his own, he was deeply agitated. The more he deliberated, the more his anxiety intensified. How could this have happened! Who was the father of this child? Was Mary’s innocence violated? Officially, and according to the Law, the marriage had already taken place. They were betrothed, but they did not as yet live together. What to do? The Law did permit stoning an adulterous woman, but he refused to shame Mary. The Law did permit him a divorce, but there had to be a better way.
Joseph’s troubles followed him to bed where they worked themselves up into a dream. It is a common occurrence—dreaming about our concerns. The dream conjured up an improbable scenario even as it unraveled the intractable dilemma–and precisely so. According to the prophecies, the Messiah would come from the House of David, Joseph's ancestral heritage. The Book of Isaiah, the “fifth gospel,” prophesied: “the virgin shall be with child; then “a shoot will spring from the root of Jesse” (Is 7:14). Although Joseph’s background was rooted in Jesse, his illustrious ancestry had its checkered past. There were skeletons in his closet too. King David, son of Jesse, cut a stunning figure of saint and sinner, and the four women mentioned in the family tree did not fare too well either. Disgraceful behavior!
In the dream, an angel announced to Joseph that he was to play a central role in the history of salvation. He had no foreknowledge of Mary’s Annunciation, no foreknowledge of Mary's divine pregnancy, a most important fact to keep in mind. He had to be told about the even. But in a dream? Most of us can interpret our dreams because they tell us the truth about ourselves in imaginative ways. But, to obey a dream? No. To marry a pregnant woman whose child was not his own? No. This meant that Mary's scandalous pregnancy would be added to the list of the family disgraces. By divine choice, Joseph would be the Child’s earthly father, assuming responsibility both for legitimizing the child and for naming him. The angel consoles him:
Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:20-22).
When he awoke from the dream, instead of dismissing it, he did as the angel bade him. Who of us today would be so foolish to obey a dream of such outlandish proportions, angel or no angel? Nevertheless Joseph’s yes reiterates and confirms Mary's. The assent of faith unites a discerning, subjective certainty with objective probability. His belief and total commitment were a total self-giving. This message was from the Lord most high.
Joseph—Saint for All Seasons
The power of God moves Joseph to leave his own security to travel towards God's plan, even though like Mary, he is free to refuse it. He utters not a word, but his actions do speak much louder than words. Describing Joseph as a just man understates his stature – and by a wide margin. The just man and woman embody and integrate the biblical virtues. Because they remain rooted in the Lord, they bring forth fruit:
The just will flourish like the palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar. . . . . The just are like trees planted near streams; they bear fruit in season and their leaves never wither. All they do prospers (Ps 1:3-4).
As Joseph stands with Mary, his role as well as hers in salvation-history—my salvation-history, cannot be overstated. He is the Church's saint for all seasons but especially during the Advent-Christmas season. Emily Dickinson's poem sums up this great and universal saint, the Messiah’s earthly father:
I fear a Man of frugal speech -
I fear a Silent Man -Haranguer -
I can overtake -Or Babbler - entertain -
But He who weigheth -
While the Rest -
Expend their furthest pound -
Of this Man - I am wary -
I fear that He is Grand -