Reflection for the Feast of St. Joseph
Feast of St Joseph - March 19
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. – Matthew 1: 18-21, 24
“When Mary was betrothed to Joseph…”
Betrothal in Joseph’s day was a time, I imagine, much like our period of engagement – a time, in St. Matthew’s words, when the couple is committed to one another, “but before they lived together.” During the Jewish betrothal rite, when the couple first publicly committed to one another as they prepared themselves for marriage, the man and woman would come together, I imagine, before a rabbi, in the synagogue, before family and friends. They would join hands and pledge themselves to one another, and the rabbi would drape his stole over their united hands.
In Joseph’s culture, one of the man’s jobs during the period of betrothal was to prepare a residence for the couple to live in once married. And for poor families, this first home was often simply rooms in the groom’s parents’ home, so he could be nearby to continue his father’s trade. So, as the betrothal ritual was ending, the groom would say the following words to his bride, words we have come to know well, though from a different Gospel and a quite different context:
“My Father’s house has many rooms. And I am going there to prepare a place for you. And once I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, so that where I am, you also may be.”
We, of course, know these words, from the Gospel of John’s Last Supper Discourses. And I very much would have liked to see the look on those eleven Jewish men’s faces when Jesus uttered them! Did he just propose to us??? The disciples would spend most of the rest of their lives coming slowly to understand that the answer was “Yes!”
But … on that night, Jesus was about to be handed over to his death, and he was celebrating a last meal with his closest friends. A period of the deepest possible threat and uncertainty was about to fall upon them. At this last supper, Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for something that was well beyond their grasp. He was about to be taken from them – taken away, not only by his death, but – in a different sense – even by his Resurrection. They were not going to have him around, in the flesh, anymore. And this, Jesus knew, would bring about fear and uncertainty.
So, this night, he was trying to prepare them for these uncertain times. Do you remember his first line that night? It sounds almost absurd, knowing what was about to happen:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid….”
“How do we not let our hearts be troubled or afraid,” the disciples must have thought as that night unfolded, “in the face of such an uncertain future?” Our own hearts, perhaps, echo this question these days.
Perhaps, we might think of Joseph in today’s Gospel, going to sleep this night, having just been informed by his betrothed that she is pregnant, but not by him. What will tomorrow bring? How can he let his heart not be troubled or afraid?
As the uncertainties of life unfold in our own lives, how can we not let our hearts be troubled or afraid?
If we were to return to the Last Supper Discourses, and read those four beautiful chapters (John 14-17) slowly, it seems to me, Jesus gives one answer to this question – over and over and over again.
How can we not let our hearts be troubled or afraid in the midst of an uncertain future?
First, Jesus says: “I am going to my Father’s house, to prepare a place for you. And then, I will come back again, and take you to this house, so that where I am, you also may be.” In other words, know that you are my Beloved, and I commit myself to you forever. I will never leave you.
Then: “I will ask the Father, and He will send you the Advocate, to help you, and be with you forever.” In other words, know that you are my Beloved, and I commit myself to you forever. I will never leave you.
Then, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.” In other words, know you are my Beloved, and I commit myself to you forever. Commit yourself to me.
And of course, this supper will end with a commitment that has no equal: “Take this bread, eat it, this is my body; take this cup, drink it, this is my blood. Do this always remembering me.” In other words, know you are my Beloved, and I commit myself to you forever. I will never leave you. I will always be with you.
Over and over and over again, the words of betrothal to us, God’s beloved: No matter what happens, I will always be with you.
As Joseph went to sleep this night, all the way at the other end of the Gospel, he prefigures the disciples the night before the Crucifixion, he prefigures us when fear and uncertainty enter our lives. Some mysterious, indeed fearful, thing is happening, that is way beyond his abilities to comprehend. How can Joseph not let his heart be troubled or afraid?
Joseph is second, only to Mary, in hearing the almost-too-good-to-be-true answer to this question: “Do not be afraid; I am with you. I will never leave you. I will always be with you. Do you trust me?”
And Joseph is second, only to Mary, in voicing the response that each of us is called to, especially when fear enters our hearts – the words that are sacramentalized on the lips of every betrothed: “I do.”
– Fr. Lou