I’ve never had sympathy for Joseph. The idea of him dismissing his pregnant fiancé to save his own reputation disturbed me. The all too real literary trope of a father abandoning his child seemed to find its roots in this Gospel story. Mary was hardly a teenager and he almost left her to fend for herself. I considered Joseph a weakling, a coward, a man not of his word. But then I became pregnant and realized that the birth of any child is a terrifying and earth-altering endeavor. It is awesome, but awesome in the sense that "awe" means mixed emotions of wonder, dread, respect. And our little babe is just a little human babe, not anything close to what the angel of the Lord is describing Joseph’s child to be. So, I get – marginally – Joseph’s fear, his trepidation. An angel of the Lord has just told him his child is about to save the people from their sins – to change the course of human history forevermore. His fear is not so much the fear of ridicule from friends and family about his pregnant teenage fiance but more that he grasps the gravitas of his and Mary’s joint calling to be the earthly parents of a divine child.
To gain perspective on Joseph, I needed to step back – to think about who he was before this dream, before he found out that he would be the human father of the prophesied Messiah.
We hear in Matthew’s text that Joseph was a righteous man, righteous meaning a law-abiding citizen. This law was the law of Moses, a law deeply intertwined in his culture and faith. Joseph was a righteous Jew, a humble man who did as the law demanded. In Yiddish, we might call Joseph a "mensch," a good Jewish man. So when Joseph finds out his fiancé Mary is pregnant prior to their own marriage, Joseph finds himself in a moral quandary. According to the law to which he is bound, "betrothal was equivalent to marriage; infidelity counted as adultery."1 Adultery could result in death, the minimal punishment public disgrace. Could Mary have been untrue? But this is not the only thing about which Joseph worries. He does not want to disgrace Mary – he cares for her, loves her. He is tied to a covenant in his faithfulness to God but also a covenant in his faithfulness to Mary, despite whatever he thinks she has done. To our knowledge, Joseph’s righteousness comes from his deep sense of commitment to the law of his people.
And then just as Joseph has solved his moral quandary and decided to dismiss Mary quietly to both follow the covenant of the Moses and in a strange way, the covenant of his betrothal to Mary, an angel of the Lord comes and turns everything upside down. "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins," the angel said.
This is no ordinary child, the angel foretold. A new covenant is at hand. The birth of the Messiah is not going to be perfect or pretty or sanitary. It is going to be messy and complicated and completely new. The old life has gone. A new life – a new life for all – is about to begin. Joseph has every right to be afraid. Everything he knows is going to change. His old life – one of security and clarity – is about to vanish.
We know such a thing can happen in our own lives. We know how life can change instantly, how an old life can disappear and a new life can begin without forewarning. There are times when this is thrilling and eventually welcomed and there are times when it is trying and never comfortable. But in that instant – that instant when you know nothing will ever be the same – what we wouldn’t do for someone to say, "Be not afraid."
The birth of Christ is "awesome" – is a mixture of wonder, dread, and reverence. We gather every year to remember that Christ’s birth is one that demands our full attention. We have the gift of hindsight and we know what such birth will bring: a life of miracles, of healing, of teaching that will lead to his death and to the cross and to the most salvific moment of all – the resurrection. The birth is the beginning of a story we know from beginning to end. To take the beginning as a separate, peaceful chapter is to ignore the gravitas, the reverence such salvation demands. Mark Twain once wrote, "It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."2 Indeed. If we understand what Christ’s birth means in the scope of the full story, then we should be unsettled.
Joseph knew from the angel’s words what Christ’s birth meant. When Joseph heard that he was to name the child "Jesus," what likely went through his head was an inner monologue likened to this: "Jesus is the Greek form of Hebrew name "Joshua," a name "which would have reminded Jews of the Hebrew word for salvation."3 Salvation – the Messiah – someone to come and save all from the valley of darkness. And Joseph knew that he had a choice: to believe in the light that shines in the darkness or to dwell in what was of the past. To be not afraid or to fear the possibility of what may come.
But that moment in between sleeping and waking was crucial for Joseph, that moment when he could sit with the decision to move forward or to stay put. That moment to be afraid before he could be in awe.
It happened like this for me, in a Brooklyn aquarium years ago. Carson and Abby stood there frozen. They were my most frightened students. They spent their days worried and wide-eyed. A trip to the Aquarium was an earth-moving endeavor. As we walked in, the only light in the hall was coming from the pale glow of the walls. Shiny jellyfish floated by, tentacles swirling slowly in the water. We came to the middle of the room where the moon jellies and flower hat jellies, sea nettles and creatures strange and small drifted along. Abby and Carson backed away. I grabbed their hands and kept walking, ignoring their whispers of "Can we go?" The room grew darker as we went deeper inside the room.
We found this little alcove, created by walls of glass, and I told Carson and Abby to go in there and just look at the jellyfish. Their little eyes squeezed shut, faces tensed and teeth gritted. They stood with their backs to the water-filled walls and faced me, my five foot tall frame attempting to block out the outside light and exit. "Turn around," I said. "You’ll be fine." Hesitantly their eyes began to open. "Now walk closer." Abby screamed. "Its ok, sweetie." "They’re swimming towards me!" The glass was so clean and the jellyfish were so close, the room seemed engulfed by sheer beasts of the sea. "Gimme your hands," and before they could offer, I grabbed their hands and put them on the glass. More screams. I held their hands until a jellyfish passed, tentacles gliding gracefully by. Their screams stopped and their mouths opened wide in awe. Carson and Abby stood there for what seemed like ages, in reverence of what was once dreadful and was now amazing in their sight. I had to beg them to leave so we could make the bus back to school. They were immersed in their new discovery and it felt complete, it made them feel a new kind of wholeness.
My prayer for all of us this Christmas season is that we approach it with a bit of reverence for what it is – the world changing before our eyes. Be a bit afraid but be certain the angel of the Lord will sing the same words to you as to Joseph – be not afraid. The child is Jesus and he will come and save us from our sins. He will come again this year and rescue us, restore us, and we will never again be the same. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. 2010, page 93.
2. Twain, Mark. Letters from Earth. 1909.
3. Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. 2010, page 95.