“…Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18) And of course, we know the rest of the story… the angel comes and tells Joseph what is expected of him – to take Mary and the child into his home – to be husband and father. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). Great! Problem solved and now we can turn the page to Matthew 2 because in that chapter Jesus is born, the magi visit and we are all set for Christmas.
But….did you ever think about how Joseph came to know? We know how Mary was informed – the Angel Gabriel came to announce the Good News. After a brief discussion, Mary accepted her role in God’s plan and says, “May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). She then seems to leave for the hill country and her visit with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Luke 1:56 tells us she stayed there about three months.
I wonder if during that time, Mary and Elizabeth talked about how Mary was going to tell Joseph about all this? I wonder if Mary ever really explained to him all that had happened; and even if she did, did he believe her? Maybe before she ever said a thing, was it already obvious she was with child? Maybe the rumors were already abounding? In some manner, he came to know that his betrothed was with child, but it wasn’t his child. Scripture tells us he knew what the Law required but it also lets us know he was a compassionate man, not wanting to expose her to the punishment of the Law.
So, we know what Joseph was thinking of doing and then what he did, but St. Matthew never tells us anything about what he must have been feeling. Can you imagine? What would be the list of your reactions if your fiancé, your spouse, your beloved came to you and said, “I am having baby… but…” What would be the caldron of emotions? Shock? Anger? Profound disappointment? I think we can all agree that Joseph would have felt a deep, abiding, pervasive pain. A pain that cut him to the quick.
Imagine a scene in which Mary and Joseph are together and she is telling him. Whatever initial emotion he is experiencing, gives way to the clear expression of a deep pain. Imagine Mary experiencing her own pain because of the grief this has caused. Let us not pass over this moment too quickly. Don’t assume it is nice Christmas card moment. Amid this Christmas story, there is the real experience of pain.
I think this is where the angel enters the picture. In Scripture, angels show up when there is heavy lifting to be done. In this case, it takes a visit from an angel to calm all this down and convince Joseph of God’s intentions and Mary’s role in a larger plan of salvation. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” – but that doesn’t mean all is yet well. I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion that we have all experienced at various times.
I wonder if Joseph was visited by his Guardian Angel. Beyond the message and convincing Joseph to take Mary into his home, I hope his Guardian Angel kept coming to visit, to bring comfort, solace, and hope for a coming future, and to be with Joseph as the memory of the pain re-emerged at some random moment in the day, as such things are want to do.
Here on the Advent journey to Christmas and the birth of Christ, we might well share more than we know with Mary and Joseph. There is lots of love, hope, faith, and excitement in this church this day – and that is to be celebrated and strengthened. And there is also sorrow to be acknowledged.
We might be in pain over strained relationships, our first Christmas without a loved one, a holiday with a loved one far away – maybe in harm’s way – so many different ways. Maybe it is the pain of uncertainty: job prospects for the new graduate, health concerns for aging parents. There are lots of the ordinary and extraordinary burdens of life that we carry to the Eucharist.
I think part of the Advent celebration is to remember God worked through real people with real challenges. He didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.
May we have the unbridled faith of Mary, the resolve of Joseph, but maybe ours is an angelic role this Christmas – to peer into the lives of another and recognize that our friends, family, and loved ones are shouldering a burden during these holidays. Maybe our role is to be the one doing the heavy lifting, to have the word of comfort and solace, and let them know that they are not alone.
It is tempting to want Christmas to be a Hallmark Card moment in our lives. And that is OK. But life continues on even in the midst of our celebration of faith. Life brings joy and sometimes pain. Mary and Joseph both needed angels. So do we. Be the angelic moment for each other. It will work out.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”