From the time when the prophet Nathan declares over king David the promise of God to raise up a dynasty for him, so that his kingdom will be established forever, as we hear in our first reading today, all of Israel came to know and believe one thing about the Messiah, whom God would send to save them: that he would be born from the line of David. No would-be Messiah could ever get to first base in convincing the Jews of his credentials unless he could prove descent from David’s line.
Therefore, it is of utmost significance for St Luke, when telling the story of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary in our gospel today, to let us know that she was betrothed to a man called Joseph of the house of David.
By the way, when the reading says that Mary was “engaged” to Joseph, this word is an inadequate translation of their situation. They were already formally married, but had not yet started living together, which is why all the fuss starts when she is found to be pregnant, because the father of the child could not have been Joseph. Even though that child in Mary’s womb, to be called Jesus, is not actually Joseph’s, since Joseph is Mary’s husband, in adopting the child as his own, Joseph confers on Jesus legal paternity. In other words, Jesus is able to claim descent from David’s line, and so Luke here connects Jesus with the messianic hope of Israel, which had its beginning, as I have said, in the oracle of Nathan read earlier. Not for the first time, as we shall see, Joseph’s actions help Jesus fulfil the words of Scripture that show him to be the true Messiah and Savior of the world.
And so we see that, from the first, Joseph’s importance in the story of our salvation, lies not so much in what he says but in what he does, in who he is.
In the gospels, Joseph speaks not a single word, but his influence is so profound and world-changing that Pope Francis has decreed a “Year of St Joseph” to be celebrated throughout the world, starting last Tuesday, December 8th, through to December 8th next year. Since December 8th is also the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and one of Mary’s main feasts, we are being told here by Pope Francis something very important for us to never forget. In looking at the story of the Christmas event, as we gaze upon the crib scene, don’t let our attention be drawn only to baby Jesus and his mother, Mary. Take note of that strong but silent figure behind them, watching over them and protecting them. That is Joseph, and his role in these crucial events of our salvation history is more important than anyone else’s save that of Jesus and Mary.
The comic Woody Allen once quipped that eighty percent of success in life lies in simply showing up. I could sum up Joseph’s importance for us in this phrase: that he simply showed up. He showed up and did what he was supposed to do, as a godly man, a godly husband and a godly foster father. We know nothing of what Joseph actually said during his life, and history holds no record of anything he wrote. So his prime example for us lies in his actions. We know from Matthew’s gospel that Joseph also had an annunciation story of his own, something we tend to forget, in focusing on Mary’s annunciation. On the fence as to what to do for the best, after hearing that his wife, Mary was pregnant, and not by him, Joseph is visited in a dream by the angel Gabriel who sweeps away his fears and anxieties by assuring him that the child conceived in Mary’s womb is from the Holy Spirit, so he is to go ahead and complete the formal marriage rites. He is told to name the child Jesus, and when Joseph wakes from sleep, we are told that:
“he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, and named her child Jesus.”Matthew 1:24-25
Instant obedience, you see, to the will of God. Mary voices her obedience “let it be done to me according to your word.” Jesus shows it not in words, but in actions. Since, as the presumed father of the child Jesus, it is Joseph’s right and responsibility to name Jesus at the naming ceremony which would have been held eight days later at his circumcision, as Luke records in his gospel (2:21).
Joseph, you see, simply shows up and does as he is required to do, and that trait recurs again and again throughout the infancy stories about Jesus. After the wise men’s visit, Joseph is again visited in a dream by an angel and warned that he has to get up and take child and mother and flee to Egypt, as King Herod is seeking to destroy the child. Once again, Joseph doesn’t argue but straightaway gets up and does as he is told. We know what happened next, we mark the Massacre of the Innocents as a somber memorial three days after Christmas. What would have happened, if Joseph had not obeyed the angel’s warning, or delayed action?
Again, after Herod’s death, an angel in another dream, tells Joseph it is time to return to Israel with his family, and in another dream, he is warned to steer clear of any area to do with Herod’s family, so he settles in Nazareth. In these last two instances, we are told that, in obeying as he did, Joseph was actually fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah spoken centuries before (Matthew 2: 15, 23). I doubt that Joseph actually knew that at the time. He strikes me as one of nature’s workers, not one of its students. Joseph is a man of action, rather than words. It is his wife, Mary, who seems to spend time pondering and reflecting on the meaning of events, according to Luke’s gospel (2: 19, 51). Not that Joseph is a stupid, dumb oaf. He understands that his role in God’s plan is to simply show up and do what he is supposed to do, but in doing that, in being prompt to obey, he is doing his bit to bring about God’s will, which is to save the world.
And that, apart from a cameo appearance when Jesus goes AWOL in Jerusalem, is that for Joseph. We get a snatch of life in the family home in Nazareth, where, we are told in Luke’s gospel that,
“the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him”Luke 2:40
and again in Luke 2:51, that after that little spurt of independence in Jerusalem, Jesus went home with his parents, and was obedient to them . We can only imagine, from our own experience of what kind of family normality it takes for a child to be able to grow up strong and wise and obedient, and how important a father’s influence is to that development, that Jesus had a normal upbringing in Nazareth. Later on, Jesus will be known as a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son, which tells us something more of Joseph’s influence on him, teaching him the skills of his own trade. But again, no words, no writings, only actions. Just showing up for duty.
You are probably thinking it strange that, with a gospel reading today where we are supposed to be looking at Mary’s role in salvation, I should have deviated from the script, and dwelt in this homily on Joseph’s role instead. My defence is that, as I said earlier, we are now, as per Pope Francis’ decree, in the Year of Joseph, and that, for too many of us, myself included, we tend to overlook Joseph’s part in the whole Christmas saga.
I also want to make a plug for the strong, silent ones amongst us, particularly the men. It might drive their wives and relations to distraction that they can hardly get a word out of them at times, but ask yourselves how often and faithfully these men show up and do what they need to do for the provision and maintenance and security and just downright normality of family life .
If the fate of the world lies in the family, to paraphrase Pope St John Paul II, then when we look at our family nativity crib scenes this Christmas, don’t overlook that fellow standing strong and silent at the back .