Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Fourth Sunday of Advent: Joseph the Righteous, Joseph the Just,
Joseph the Compassionate
Today’s Gospel gives us the opportunity to focus in on one of the main figures in the stories of the Birth of Our Lord, or the Infancy Narratives, St. Joseph. First of all, the term infancy narratives. These are the Christmas stories as found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Prologue of the Gospel of John gives a theological presentation of the Eternal Word of God become flesh, but John starts his narrative with the events that took place when the Lord had already become a man, the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of the Lord.
The Infancy Narratives in the Gospel of Luke present Joseph as the foster father of the Lord, but the main focus outside of Jesus is placed on Mary. It’s the Gospel of Matthew, today’s gospel to be exact, that focuses on Joseph. This makes a great deal of sense. Matthew’s main audience was Jewish Christians. Joseph was of the line of David. The Jewish people were very much aware that God had promised David that his Kingdom would never end.
But the Gospel also makes it clear that Joseph was not the natural or birth father of the Lord. Mary was a Virgin. The child was conceived through the Holy Spirit. So, why is Jesus seen as part of the line of David through Joseph? This is because Joseph names the child. For the ancients this meant he had made the child his own. We can even say that he adopted the child. Now we view adoption as a legal procedure. The ancients viewed adoption as both a legal act and a spiritual act. When a man adopted a child, all that made that man who he is, his background, his ancestry, all of this poured out upon the child. When Joseph named the child, adopted the child, Kind David, King Solomon, and all that was part of Joseph’s ancestry became part of Jesus’ ancestry. The prophets predicted that the Messiah would come through the line of David. This takes place through Joseph.
Even though the infancy narratives in Matthew focus on Joseph, Joseph is not quoted. But we still know a great deal about him. We know that he was a righteous man. That meant that he was in the right with God. And we know that Joseph was open to the guidance of God, given to him three different times in dreams.
One of Joseph’s ancestors was the patriarch Joseph. This was the son of Jacob whom God spoke to through dreams. His brothers, you remember, were jealous of him and were about to put him to death, when they changed their mind and sold him into slavery to an Egyptian merchant. The merchant’s wife tried to entice Joseph, but he remained honorable, so she had him put into prison, claiming that he assaulted her. Joseph’s righteousness was rewarded by God. Joseph had dreams about a coming famine in the area. The Pharaoh heard about these and sent for Joseph. He believed him and placed Joseph as administrator of the Kingdom of Egypt. Joseph had huge silos built to store grain for coming years. When the famine came, Egypt had plenty and could also sell their grain to other nations. You might remember that Joseph’s brother’s came groveling to him when famine hit their families.
Our Joseph, St. Joseph, received three dreams of which we are aware. In the first, and most important, he was told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. A second dream took place after the birth in Bethlehem. Joseph was told to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt for the wicked King Herod meant to kill Jesus. After Herod died, and while the Holy Family was in Egypt, Joseph had another dream, this one telling him to return to Palestine, which he did but avoiding Jerusalem.
The most important information we have about Joseph is not that he was a dreamer; it was that Joseph was a righteous man, a just man. A just person puts his or her relationship with God before all else in life and cares for people as God would care for them. In scriptures, someone who is just reflects God’s compassion.
We all know the story so well. Joseph was about to marry a beautiful young girl. Then he learned that she was pregnant. He was devastated. He must have been heart broken. His life must have appeared to be shattered. Now Jewish Law would come to the aid of a man in his situation. The offending woman would be tried, and most probably killed. If there were extenuating circumstances and she was lucky, she would be cast out of society, and treated with scorn the rest of her life, a pariah, an outcast, forced to beg for food for herself and her child.
Joseph was a just man. Joseph was a compassionate man. He would not do this to the girl. He would not expose Mary to the law. He was certain that God couldn’t possibly want that to happen. He would send her away to a distant relative where she could live somewhat of a normal life with the child. Treating Mary with kindness was more important than his rights before the Law.
There is a great deal that we need to learn from St. Joseph. So many times we invoke the law of the land rather than consider how God is calling us to behave. We rush to sue someone who has offended us instead of consider how we can settle the situation in a Christ like way. We hide behind the law as we tear apart families.
The basic problem is that there are many Americans who place country before God. St. Paul tells us that in Philippians 3:20 that our citizenship is in heaven. God comes first, then country. What we need to do as Catholics is work hard that our country’s laws reflect the law of the Kingdom. What we should never do is invoke the law of the land over the law of God.
Joseph was exposed to ridicule. Some people had to have known that Mary was pregnant and that Joseph was not the father. Joseph had the law on his side. But Joseph was just. He was compassionate. He asked himself, “What would God want me to do?” Then he made the decision to protect Mary, even though at that point in his mind, it appeared that she had offended him. He would send her away where she could be safe. It was after Joseph made the decision to do what God would want him to do, that the angel appeared to him in the dream. He was not only to care for Mary and the child. Joseph was to name the child. This child would really, perhaps not physically, but really be Joseph’s. The Church recognizes that by becoming the father of the Holy Family, Joseph became the father of the Universal Church.
Joseph is one of our greatest saints. His greatness flows from the fact that Joseph was righteous. Joseph was just. Joseph was compassionate. Today we pray to St. Joseph to give us the courage to be righteous. Give us the courage, St. Joseph, to choose the way of the Kingdom of Love over the ways of the kingdoms of man.