A model of faithful discipleship – Friday, 3rd week in advent – Matthew1:18-24
Matthew’s Gospel has no Christmas story just the run up to it and the declaration of the birth of Jesus in verse 25. There are no shepherds, no manger, no long winter travel to Bethlehem but there is the narrative of the wise men. The Matthean text tells the story more from the angle of Joseph’s perspective, while the Lukan birth narrative tells the tale from the perspective of Mary. With its focus on Joseph as the chief character, Matthew’s unique story of Jesus’ birth will probably not be the model for any children’s Christmas pageant, in many of which Joseph seems to walk in the shadows as a necessary. Fortunately, in the Catholic Church, we are in the year of St Joseph which began on the 8th of December and will end on the 7th December 2021.
Joseph is engaged to Mary, but they have not yet “come to live together.” When Mary is found to be with child, a dilemma arises for Joseph. He does not yet know that the child is “from the Holy Spirit” and believes that she has been unfaithful, bringing dishonor to both their families. According to the law, Joseph had grounds not only to dismiss Mary, but even to have her stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-30).
It would do well if we have some background information about early Jewish marriages in order to understand the exposition of this text. Betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin) was a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents that took place at birth but when one reached an age of reason one got engaged. The second step (nissu’in) or an engagement was considerably later, often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. Engagements in this culture was a formal contractual matter. It is for this reason that Matthew says that Joseph had resolved to “divorce” Mary whom he was only engaged to; engagements were legally binding contracts, unlike engagements today.
Yet God had other plans. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). The angel further says that Mary will bear a son, and that Joseph is to name him Jesus (the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “he saves”), for “he will save his people from their sins” (1:21).
Joseph occupies a central place in this gospel. He is no wishy-washy person, but a person of strength and purpose. St Joseph had an essential role in the Incarnation, just like Our Lady. He received the message of an angel. Our Lord could not have been born if he had not said ‘yes.’ His ‘yes’ to God’s call was essential, just like Our Lady’s.
St Joseph is committed and faithful to his religious tradition and ready to act on that commitment. When the call of God comes to him through an angel in a dream, he is not just ruminating; he has already made a definite decision, “resolved” upon a course of action.
Told against the backdrop of Old Testament stories of others to whom God’s call has come, this story is noticeably different. When the call comes, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the call. Joseph becomes visibly and audibly an example of the power of God’s call to transform our decisions and our lives. So here at the beginning, he is a model of faithful discipleship long before we hear Jesus’ commission at the end to “Go and make disciples” of all nations.
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