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Joseph and decision-making

By Fr Donald Chambers

Many Caribbean families, including my own, grew up huddled together in small houses. Huddled together in cramped spaces, we grappled with each other’s foibles, differences, idiosyncrasies, personalities, habits, and even body odour as we created a ‘space’ called home.

In Matthew 1:20c, the angel of the Lord instructed Joseph, “. . . do not be afraid to take Mary home . . .”

In this article, I reflect on the challenges that Joseph encountered in taking home Mary, the source of his disappointment and broken expectations, and his huddling with her.

Having not yet cohabited with Joseph nor engaged in sexual intercourse (Mt 1:18), the surprising news of Mary’s pregnancy would have generated a flood of feelings and racing thoughts for Joseph.

Due to the natural tendency that a man and a woman in love would have engaged in sexual intercourse, the culture prescribed that fathers, husbands and brothers watch, guard, and protect the women in their care (Sir 26:10–12). Women were expected to be in the company of other women and children younger than the age of puberty, and houses were built with an inner courtyard reserved for unmarried women and which was secluded from public view.

The knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy places her in a twofold predicament that would have emotional and religious implications for Joseph.

Her father and brothers would have been shamed for not having taken proper care of her, according to Sirach 42:9–10. The shame of Mary’s family would have been increased on the evening of the marriage if no token of virginity was produced (Dt 22: 13–31), and the family would have lost their honour status in the village.

Joseph would have been deeply concerned about Mary’s loss of honour status and possible death because the law (Dt 22:13–21; Num 5:11–31) stipulated that if there was no evidence of her virginity, the villagers would take Mary to the door of her father’s house and stone her to death.

Imagine Joseph’s feelings of embarrassment, confusion, shame, and disappointment. It is likely that his mind entertained many questions about what really happened, Mary’s faithfulness, and how to respond. His decision to divorce her privately was missing God’s input. With God’s input subsequently communicated in the dream, Joseph revisited his decision.

Do not be afraid

God’s message was “Do not be afraid to take home Mary.” The exhortation “Do not be afraid” would have been familiar to Joseph because Yahweh frequently communicated and comforted many Hebrew figures with those words (Gen 15: 1; Isa 35:4).

Hearing those words would have calmed Joseph’s racing thoughts and soothed his volcanic feelings of fear, shame, and embarrassment. I believe that the words “to take Mary home” meant huddling together with Mary and all the shame and embarrassment she, as well as his non-biological child, would represent.

The inclusion of God’s message in Joseph’s decision-making does not negate the latter’s feelings and thoughts. In the words of Pope Francis, “The voice of God . . . speaks to the present, helping us to move ahead in the here and now. What comes from God asks: what is good for me, what is good for us?” . . . and “avoid making decisions while trapped in past hurts or in fears of the future that risk immobilizing us” (Let Us Dream).

Joseph’s ‘yes’ challenges us to take home and huddle together with our raw feelings and thoughts generated by experiences of broken expectations and disappointments and allow God’s Word to marinate them.

Joseph models for us the open and frank relationships that, for example, the Psalmist and the prophets engendered with Yahweh.

In the midst of broken expectations and disappointments, Pope Francis has this to say, “Often in life, things happen whose meaning we do not understand. Our first reaction is frequently one of disappointment and rebellion. Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events. . . to embrace them, take responsibility for them and make them part of his own history.

“Unless we are reconciled with our own history, we will be unable to take a single step forward, for we will always remain hostage to our expectations and the disappointments that follow… Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all is contradictions, frustrations and disappointments” (Patris Corde, 4).

As with Joseph, are you at a crossroad where you have the option either to take ‘home’ someone who is a source of shame and embarrassment to you and your family, or discard them to the proverbial wolves?

When I have taken these persons ‘home’, I gradually discovered the mysterious presence of Christ amidst the conflicting feelings and thoughts generated by the broken expectations and disappointments.

Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.