When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
Joseph was an older man. Tradition says that he had been widowed and that he had had children from a previous marriage. He was described in Matthew 1:19 as being “dikaios” in Greek. This word translates in many ways—it can mean, righteous, just, moral, dignified, upright. It is one of the strongest descriptive words in the Greek language because it captures everything that is good, decent and noble about a human being. This is the man that God chose to be the protector of Mary and Jesus. After Mary came out of the temple where she had been raised since the age of 3, she was 14 and had no parents. Mary was known in the temple, and Joseph was known as a righteous man, and they were matched together in betrothal. We spoke previously about what it would be like for Mary to be found pregnant outside of wedlock, but what about Joseph? If he was the older man, and supposed to be the leader in the relationship, if he was the man of dignity and honor, dikaios, what would this say about his life? Joseph was no doubt confused and perplexed. The Gospel doesn’t say that he was angry. His reaction was to divorce Mary, in the sense that he would break off their engagement and blame it on his own indiscretion, to protect her. This wouldn’t be a divorce of convenience because they didn’t get along. At the time, this act would have been seen as an act of mercy on the wife and shame on the husband. Joseph was going to ruin his reputation in order to save Mary’s. Again, this was how the society of 2,000 years ago would have looked at this, not our society of today.
And as Joseph considered doing all of this, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and said “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.” (Matthew 1: 20-21) We know that when Zacharias was approached by the angel and told that he and his wife Elizabeth would give birth to the Forerunner of Christ, he questioned the angel and was rendered mute. Even Mary had a dialogue with the angel of how she was going to have a child without a husband. Joseph, on the other hand, has no dialogue with the angel. He listens and obeys. In Matthew 1:24-25, we read that “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” In other words, he took the words of the angel and followed them exactly. He didn’t filter those words through his own thoughts, just took them and obeyed.
Later on, after the Incarnation, Joseph is visited two more times in his dreams by an angel, first to tell him to flee to Egypt to take Mary and Jesus and spare them from the slaughter of the innocents that was inflicted on the area by King Herod. Later, he was told that Herod had died and it was safe to return home. In both of those cases, Joseph didn’t engage in any dialogue and didn’t even ask any questions. He simply followed directions.
In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Jesus outlines some very specific things in the Bible, most specifically that we are to love God and love our neighbor. He tells us that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. He tells us that a widow who put in all that she had, even though it was only two coins, was rewarded more than those who put in from their excess. He tells us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow. What He doesn’t do is quantify these things. He doesn’t tell us exactly how many times we have to do these things.
The angel who delivered God’s message to Joseph didn’t fill in all the details about the like of Jesus. He didn’t tell Joseph exactly what his role would be. The angel just told Joseph not to be afraid and to go along with this plan. And Joseph also said yes. While we highlight the role of Mary, the Incarnation couldn’t have happened without Joseph. Who would have protected Mary on the journey to Bethlehem? Who would have taken care of her on the flight to Egypt? Who would have helped Jesus find a trade, or helped Jesus find His place among the men of that society?
Part of obedience is selflessness, to abandon the idea of glory of self, and instead put emphasis on the glory of God and service to others. (This does not mean we never get to have fun. The acronym J-O-Y, Jesus-Others-Yourself does have a “Y” for yourself. Being a “J-O” is a noble idea, but practically does not work. We do need to make time for personal joy. However, there are lots of “Y’s” out there who live almost exclusively for themselves without thought to Jesus or others). Joseph serves as a shining example of obedience. That doesn’t mean he never laughed, didn’t have friends, didn’t have fun with Jesus or his other children. It means that his priority was Jesus and others, exemplified in his obedience to the angel’s message which led him to obediently take part in all the things that followed.
Joseph, tell us, how is it that you bring to Bethlehem the Maiden you received from the Temple, now great with child? And he replies, “I have studied the prophetic books, after receiving a revelation from an Angel; and I am convinced that Mary shall give birth to God, in ways passed understanding. Magi will come from the East, with precious gifts, to adore Him.” O Lord who took flesh for our sake, glory to You! (Doxastikon, Third Hour, Royal Hours of the Nativity, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: Take time today to think about Joseph, the role he played and the obedience he showed.