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A sermon prepared but not preached.
A few years ago, the BBC showed a series for Holy Week called The Passion. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory, I thought but it had its moments, especially in scenes involving the wonderful Penelope Wilton, an actress I much admire, as Mary. There was a scene in the first episode – needless to say not entirely as in the Gospels – when Mary had arrived from Nazareth to see Jesus, and he goes out of the house to speak to her privately. She is concerned for him, naturally, and he gives her (if I may so put it with reverence, but this is a rather wishy-washy Jesus) something rather bland about trusting God. Mary’s reply is quite astringent. “Don’t try to teach me about trusting God,” she says in effect. And then she says, “What if Joseph had said no? What if he had refused to marry me?”
To me, a whole new dimension of the story opened up. The real feelings of a teenager, finding herself unexpectedly pregnant as the result of divine intervention. Trust God? OK, I’ll trust God – but, God, you’re taking a lot for granted . What about Joseph? Supposing he doesn’t trust God? He’s only human, he’ll only have my word about what has happened. Suppose he doesn’t believe me?
Of course, Joseph does what God requires of him. In St Matthew’s Gospel, the first adjective applied to Joseph is “just”, or “righteous”. The just or righteous man is someone whose principle concern is to do what is right; and that means to act in accordance with God’s will. In a Jewish context, that means following Torah, the Law, the way of life revealed and commanded by God. Joseph was “a just man”, and loving Mary as he did, he knew that the right thing was to stick by her, to look after her, no matter what others might think or say. God knew that Joseph would not say no, just as he knew that Mary would not say no. Not because they were forced to, but because of all the worlds he might have made, he chose to make the one in which both Mary and Joseph said yes, freely and of their own accord. God knew, but Mary and Joseph did not know. They had to believe, to trust.
Then the angel addresses him as “son of David.” The only other person in the New Testament given this title is the Messiah himself. Joseph is put in the line of the shepherd-kings of Israel, even though he is only a humble craftsman. Even though Jesus will not be physically descended from Joseph, he will at the human level receive his royal patrimony through this man. This too is an immense thing.
Finally, Joseph is described (if not called in so many words) obedient. He did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do. Much later, a woman would invoke a blessing on the womb that bore Jesus, the breasts he sucked- in other words, on his mother Mary. Jesus replied, “More blessed those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Joseph heard, and he obeyed. Perhaps this is the most immense thing of all, the well-spring of his righteousness, the expression of his royalty. Joseph is a hero of mine. If I can give away a bit more of my past viewing (and indeed my past reading), he is the Mr J.L.B. Matekoni of the Gospels. Fans of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency will know what I mean. He is quiet, kind, loyal, and when necessary capable of real heroism. Joseph is the ideal husband – he knows when to keep his mouth shut and just get on and do what he is told.
Mary, our Lady, is the one human person absolutely essential to God’s plan of salvation. To take flesh and come among us, to be born in order to die, he had to have a mother. That is why we honour Mary as we do. But after her, in concrete reality, Joseph comes next. In the world into which Jesus was born, his holy mother needed a guardian, protector and defender. She needed a husband. Mary was not (as some people nowadays tend to say, a single mother. Joseph was always there, until God called him home. Joseph protected Mary’s good name. Joseph ensured that she got safely to Bethlehem, the place of prophecy for the birth of the Messiah. Joseph took the mother and child safely to Egypt, to escape Herod’s fury. Joseph brought them back safely to Nazareth and supported them all through Jesus’s childhood. Joseph, by his example, taught the Son of God the human meaning of the word “father.”
When Jesus was twelve years old he was lost for three days, before being found in the Temple. Mary applies yet another adjective to Joseph (and to herself): “We have been looking for you anxiously.” The word used is a strong one: “We have been in pain and distress,” or “we have been grieving,” would be closer. Joseph took his responsibilities seriously. For twelve years he had been the guardian of Mary and her Son. Had he now failed in his stewardship? All was well. Jesus himself, having come of age as far as the Law was concerned – bar mitzvah – had learned to distinguish the business of his heavenly Father from that of his beloved foster-father. In a sense, he was saying to Joseph, you have done your work. You have shown me a father’s care. I now know who I am. I see the reality to which your example pointed me. Even so, he went down to Nazareth and continued to be under their authority – Joseph’s as well as Mary’s. How immense was that!
Husbands and fathers could do much worse than take Joseph as their role model. After all, God chose him to be the male role-model for Jesus.
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