What Joseph teaches us

In the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel there are two annunciations made to Joseph in dreams. The first one concerns the birth of Jesus; the second centers around the need to flee Herod. In a way, Matthew’s recounts of the “dreams” underscore the need for inner peace and silence. And they also point out how in redemptive reality, all depends upon God’s initiative.

We know very little of Joseph’s background. Matthew concludes his genealogy of Jesus with the observation: “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Mt 1: 16).

Both the fact that he was the husband of Mary and his gentle sensitivity toward Mary when she was found to be with child (Mt 1: 18-19) indicates that on a human level, he was a man of great love. And we might pause to reflect upon the truth, enunciated by Francois Mauriac, that human love is essential for understanding divine love.

The qualities of human love which I believe help us understand God’s love for us are many. We might just list a few. Love is never an abstraction. It is always directed toward an individual. Love involves, as we know, total acceptance of the other. If we give thought to it, we realize that love is a gift--it cannot be programmed. Nor is it earned. As we know, true love is ever-deepening. All of these qualities are reflective of the love God has for each one of us.

There is one specific quality of our human love which must be emphasized. The poet and writer Charles Williams singled out this characteristic when he wrote his bride-to-be: “I do not wish you to love me simply as I am, but I want you to love me as your way to God.” Loving others as their way to God infuses the notion of love--on any level--with a specific Christian dimension.

As we turn to the annunciations which center about Joseph, we see how he was asked to accept a mystery in faith. One could not--on a natural level--comprehend the angel’s message. As yet the idea of a three-person deity had not yet been revealed. Thus the Holy Spirit as a divine person would have been unknown. And faith always demands, as mentioned above, an element of trust--clinging to God and his word.

The message the angel delivered has deep relevance for ourselves. The child to be born is Emmanuel -- God-with-us. God’s approach to us is one of attachment. At baptism, he irrevocably promises that he will walk with us every step of our earthly journey. We merely have to turn to him, in our difficulties, to seek his support.

Nor should we be afraid to turn to the Lord for his help. Indeed, later in the Gospel Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us. His listeners would have grasped the meaning of this image. They would have seen how, for example, two oxen are yoked together to share the burden they are carrying. In an analogous way, Jesus is indicating to us that he is willing -- rather desirous -- to support us, to share our burdens and to strengthen us.

While still focusing on the first annunciation to Joseph, I am reminded of a question that I often ask myself: What do I want to bring to the Lord at the time of judgment? My answer is connected with verse 21: “...you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The conversion and salvation of sinners is close to the heart of Jesus from the very beginning. And it is a challenge for me to continuously pray and sacrifice for this intention.

There are two final points to be made concerning Joseph. As the Scriptures indicate, he was a carpenter. His life was circumscribed by ordinary tasks. Yet he was chosen to be the guardian of the Child and his mother. In this, he teaches us the importance of the ordinary in God’s plan. It reminds us that it is through our ordinary activity that we too should be conscious of bringing forth Christ in our world.

The second point is to realize that sometimes the faith-life will lead to hardships. This is especially true in a culture which easily dismisses Christian values. In Joseph’s case we see the hardships in his journey to Bethlehem, his rejection at the Inn, the birthplace for the Lord. And finally, we read: “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.’’ And in this context, we learn from Joseph what W. H. Auden wrote:

To choose what is difficult all one’s days

As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.