May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the focus of our readings move to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hardly a surprise, given how it is all but impossible to think of Christmas and the birth of our Lord without also thinking of his Mother. The gospels give us two accounts of his miraculous conception and birth: the first, from St Luke, looks at events from the perspective of our Lady; and the other, by St Matthew, from the viewpoint of her most holy husband, St Joseph.
It is this latter account we look at today*. And in it we have what might be considered some curious words. St Matthew tells us that when St Joseph discovered that his espoused bride was found to be with child even though they were not living together as husband and wife he decided to end the marriage quietly, so as not to expose Mary to public disgrace. And he was doing so because he was a righteous man.
Now we may well ask ourselves why a righteous man would wish to protect the reputation of a woman who had betrayed her sacred vows to him and was now carrying a child who was not his, especially as to do so would be to risk his own reputation. By behaving in this way people would naturally assume the child was his; and an older man abandoning his very young bride who was with child would be seen as an odious figure indeed. The only explanation for his actions is that St Joseph believed our Lady when she told him the manner of how she had conceived, even before he was granted a divine vision concerning the matter. Which raises the question as to why he should have accepted her extraordinary story?
A clue to his actions may lie in an ancient tradition connected with Mary's own birth. The story is well known; and I imagine many of you have heard of it before. It comes from the very early, but non-Scriptural, Christian work called the Protoevangelium of James. This tells the story of how Mary's parents, Anne and Joachim, after many years of marriage, had not been blessed with children, much to their sorrow and shame. As in the Old Testament story of Samuel, Anne prays for a child, promises that if she is granted her prayer that the child will be dedicated to serve the Lord in his Temple. Her prayer is answered and Anne is faithful to her word, with Mary taking up residence to serve in the Temple from a young age as a consecrated virgin – a service to the Lord the young Mary, a child of great holiness, was only too willing to perform. And when she reaches the very young age in their society age when a girl would be expected to be betrothed, the elderly widower Joseph is asked by the temple authorities to be her guardian, and stop her being courted by the young men attracted by her beauty by becoming her betrothed himself. This gave him the legal standing to act as her protector; but his role was to be her husband in name only. Her vow of perpetual virginity was to be respected always. Naturally such a task could only be entrusted to a man who was of great and renowned holiness himself, lest he fall prey to the temptation of taking advantage of the beautiful young woman who would now be, according to the customs of his time, entirely within his power.
Now the Protoevangelium is not scriptural and no one is obliged to accept what it says; nevertheless, this particular tradition does help us to understand why St Joseph never doubted the Blessed Virgin's story. An ordinary girl might well lie as to how she became pregnant. But a young woman whose entire history was steeped in holiness, whose life story gave every indication that the Lord God had great plans for her, would far more easily be believed … especially by a man of such marvellous holiness as St Joseph.
Now much is made of the 'Fiat' of our Lady, her 'let they will be done' when asked by God to be the mother of the incarnate word; and rightly so. But today let us consider also the wonderful obedience of St Joseph. He had agreed in his declining years to be the guardian of a young woman – an act of great charity to be sure, but hardly an arduous one; but that plan is greatly changed. He is instead being asked to be the protector and foster father of the long awaited Messiah. But, elderly though he is, and great though the responsibility that he is being asked to undertake is, St Joseph does not hesitate. The same faith in God which led him to take on the role of Mary's protector, the same faith which caused him to believe her, this faith caused him to accept the task God set him of being the earthly father of the Son of God. His faith and obedience is a model to us all. And I pray that it will act as an inspiration to you, this day and always. Amen.