Last Sunday, we began our exploration of God’s preparation for His first advent by choosing a mother for His Son. This week, we examine God’s choice of Joseph, the foster-father of Christ.
Traditional Christian art often portrays Joseph as a slightly aloof, though watchful, geriatric. However, owing to various sources shedding light on Hebrew Biblical practices, it is now generally thought that Joseph may have been in his late teens or early twenties at the time of his betrothal to Mary.
We first meet Joseph in the Scriptures as part of a genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, identified as the “husband of Mary” (1:16). The gospel writer next explains the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth: “His mother, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph but, before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (1:18).
Betrothals were fairly public things. The families of bride and groom gathered with a few other witnesses. The man would present the woman with a gold ring or other valuable item or a document, and say to her, “See, by this ring (or token), thou art set apart for me, according to the Law of Moses and of Israel” (biblehistory.com).
Although considered legally married, the couple lived apart for one year, after which the groom returned to take his bride to their home. So: married, pregnant without ever having lived with her husband—by law, Mary’s ostensible adultery warranted death by stoning. But, “being a man of honour and wishing to spare her publicity, (Joseph) decided to divorce her informally” (Mt 1:19). He would have issued Mary with a private writ, ending the entire matter quietly.
Am I as merciful to those who have hurt or deceived me when given the opportunity to make them pay?
It is for this act, notes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, that Joseph is considered “a just man … aligning him with the great figures of the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, the just”.
He cites the Psalm 1 definition of the just man: one “who maintains a living contact with the word of God, who ‘delights in the law of the Lord’.” (vs 2).
Who would recognise and obey the voice of God, even in the wisps of a dream (Mt 1:20–21). Joseph had already “made up his mind” (v 20) to divorce Mary, when the angel spoke to him in that dream.
Am I too proud to change my mind when my intended action is clearly not God’s will?
The instruction to name Mary’s child (v 21) would make Joseph the legal father of Jesus and fulfil God’s promise to King David, Joseph’s ancestor, that his throne would endure forever (2 Sam 7:16).
Courage, honour, piety, mercy – small wonder that Joseph was chosen to be foster-father of the Lord of Mercy.
Laura Ann Phillips is a writer, former missionary and a lover of the Word of God. A past Vision editor, she has been a Catholic News contributor for over 20 years.