The Gospel today gives us some background for the Christmas feast that we need to take to heart. It speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.
We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the “baby Jesus in the manger.” It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental about Christmas but we also have to be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in its coming to pass.
Let’s look at the gospel in three stages: Distress, Direction and Decision.
1. DISTRESS – The text of the Gospel says, 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.
The Marriage is off – When we read in this text that Mary was found to be with child before Joseph and she were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation is. The pregnancy prior to marriage brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the marriage permanently off.
Why is this? We read in the text above that Joseph was “a righteous man.” To our ears this sounds akin to saying he “was a good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpret “righteous” here to refer generally to his gracious character and virtue. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship also includes the notion that to say he was “a righteous man” also means that he was “an observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the law prescribed. And this explains his decision to divorce Mary on account of her apparent lack of virginity prior to the marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:
But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you. (Deut 22:20-21)
This of course is quite extreme to modern ears, but we can see too how far we have come in making light of promiscuity compared to ancient times. No one would argue that such a thing be done today, and rightly so. However this was the landscape that the Law provided Joseph.
What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the First Century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or simply permitted (cf John 8). Joseph, on account of his virtue and patience, looks for, and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e. follower of the Law) it seems he decides that divorce is surely required, even if stoning is not.
Now this leads us to two important reflections. One about Mary, and one about Joseph.
Regarding Mary, we can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her “yes” (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. WE know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet know this, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary indicated exactly how she conceived, do you think YOU would merely accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in a real danger, culturally speaking and it is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to his plans.
Regarding Joseph we can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point. But we can assume when Mary was “found to be with child” prior to the couple’s being together in Marriage, the social pressures on him from family to be legally free from Mary were likely strong, whatever his feeling or plans for her were.
As we shall see, Joseph too will undertake great risk to obey God. And thus we go to the second stage of the story.
2. DIRECTION – The text from the Gospel says, Such was his intention [to divorce] 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.”
Be not afraid – One will note that the principle exhortation of the angel that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful since fear WAS a very big factor in this whole matter. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church indicate that the thing the angel said he should not fear was God’s wrath, since in fact, he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think the thing he should not fear was taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.
One can also imagine however some other fears that also needed to be consoled by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. Likewise neighbors and others could shun him. As a business man Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to use his skills and ply a trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph bucks the law and custom and “brings evil into his house” rather than “purge the (apparent) evil from the midst” of his house. But the angel directs his not to fear. This will take courageous faith.
The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? Not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What of the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual.
Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph too has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not fear for God has given him direction. But as is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.
3. DECISION – The text from the Gospel says, When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
Now given all that we have reflected upon, we can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Joseph manfully does this. He makes his decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information on how his family and others in the town may have reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on his promise that Joseph need not be afraid.
Heroes of Faith! But here again note the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Quite literally their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.
And, as we know their difficulties were not over in the crisis of that first Christmas. There was a badly timed census which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in the ninth month! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt riding a donkey in the ninth month is all that comfortable either. Then there was no room in the inn and Jesus had to be born in a smelly animal stable. Shortly thereafter they must flee through the desert to Egypt for Herod sought to kill Jesus.
Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a hallmark one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. But this where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may hope for the perfect Christmas but there is no perfect Christmas. Yet, Jesus will find you where you are – in real life, in the imperfect Christmas where loved ones may have been recently lost and there is grief, where a job has just been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor or families are experiencing stress and strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of Joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find him, in the real Christmas of your life.
This song is an old African American Spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what the these words say:
I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name
Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name
Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name
But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name
15 Replies to “Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent”
Thank you for this inspiring reflection! How often I’ve read or heard this and yet never stopped to really consider, in depth, the reality — the courage and humanness of Mary and Joseph.
This homily has some really excellent insights.
As I have been taught, there was also something miraculous about the nature of the birth of Jesus. He was born in a way that in no way took away the virginity of Mary. The example I recall is that in the same way that He miraculously moved through walls after He rose from the dead, He also was born. Possibly, one reason that He miraculously moved through walls after He rose from the dead was to teach His Apostles about the nature of His birth. Also, possibly St. Joseph witnessed the miraculous nature of His birth to confirm to St. Joseph that he was correct to have followed the angel that spoke to him in a dream.–and as a little Christmas gift to St. Joseph.–and to strengthen him for the difficulties yet to come. If there is anything not pious or against Catholic teaching in that thought, then someone please tell me.
Thank-you for your sharing. All I was told ever about the birth of Jesus was through the movie, “The Nativity”. I never knew that it is possible that Jesus was once he rose from the dead was able to move through walls to show the apostles how he was born. God Bless.
Christ in His Mysteries by Blessed Dom Columba Marmion has some marvelous regarding the Wondrous Exchange that took place at Christmas.
Thank you, Father! May our Lord bless you always and may He continue to bless us through you. Merry Christmas!!
Thank you for your post and for the whole year of posts. They have inspired me and have given me strength especially when I didn’t think I could stand up for the faith of Christ. It is most difficult to defend the Catholic faith among other catholic who wish it was a more soft and fluffy religion. Where confession is not important and social justice is paramount, the military is always evil and politicians with money and distorted religious view are O.K.
Hanging in until Easter and I will see what happens, please pray for me. This post gave me the knowledge I needed at critical time. Thanks again.
Thank-you Msgr. Pope for excellent article. God Bless.
By Jewish law Mary and Joseph were already married, having completed the leagal (betrothal) ceremoney.
See Deuteronomy 22:20ff. A betrothed woman is a man’s “wife”. Also see JPII “Custos Redemtoris” no 18 and Benedict XVI “Jesus of Nazareth: Infancy Narratives” pg. 34. The fact that they were already married is what made the possibility of the death penalty. (see the section of Deut. already mentioned for the difference between married and unmarried women. My late wife (Mary) always was upset when Advent brought out the homilies depicting Mary and Joseph as not leagally married.
Have a wonderfull Christmas. I enjoy your blog. I expect you have met my son, Fr. Peter.
Yes, I think the text of the Scripture is fairly clear on that.
Msgr. Pope, thank you for this excellent post.
I have been struggling, trying to reconcile various explanations of Joseph’s decision for a quiet divorce. Please correct me, but I think you are continuing a common misunderstanding that Joseph and Mary were yet to be married at this time when he was facing this divorce dilemma.
Mt 1:v19 clearly indicates that Joseph was Mary’s ‘husband’. This must have been due to the fact that previously they had executed a kiddushin commitment but were not yet living under the same roof as man and wife (nisu’in). Also, the fact that he was considering divorce is further evidence they were married. If they were not married, they was nothing to divorce.
Since sex was not permitted during the kiddushin, and Mary was officially married to Joseph, then her pregnancy was evidence that she was guilty of adultery. [Of course we know this to be false due to her virginal conception by the Holy Spirit].
As you point out, Joseph’s dilemma as a righteous man under the Jewish Law was to either a) expose Mary to stoning or b) divorce her.
The many places in the post where you indicate they were NOT married seems more an artifact of our modern interpretation of the word betrothed (engaged). The first century Jewish customs and the words in the Gospel of Matthew seems to indicate a different conclusion.
No, I understand they were married. But they had not been together yet. I am not aware that I say in the homily that they were not married. Hence I do not follow your objection.
From Section 1: Distress
“The Marriage is off – When we read in this text that Mary was found to be with child before Joseph and she were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation is. The pregnancy prior to marriage brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the marriage permanently off.”
This text equates ‘before Joseph were together’ with ‘prior to marriage’. Also in the same paragraph, ‘plans for the marriage permanently off’.
Hence my confusion.
Well, the “marriage is off” is an isolated expression that, if you read my piece is not to be read in a univocal sense, as you do. Otherwise why would I (and the scripture) use the word “divorce.” Come on man, have some appreciation and understanding for the different senses of language and especially the use of idiomatic expressions. Further We are speaking as moderns to a sense of marriage that is unfamilar to us. Being married but not having lived together or having sex is not a reality for which we have a lot of terminology. Hence the phrase “prior to marriage” though imprecise univocally is contextually sensible in the way we understand and experience marriage today. Circumlocutions are clumsy and I am clear throughout the article that that they are married, though not in the sense we use the word, and that Joseph is seeking to divorce her quietly. Divorce is a senseless term if there is no marriage. Finally is this really that big a deal? I mean God forbid that someone might not know all the particulars of Jewish marriage law, and aren’t all conversant in Jewish words like kiddushin and nisu’in. But really….what ever the case the problem is the same and thus Joseph plans divorce. Why sweat all the details. This is a homily not a Graduate level STL/D treatise.
I have spent a few years contemplating Mary’s role in Christ’s redemptive suffering. She suffered very very much from the first moment the angel hailed her. Village communal life could be harsh, both in environment and people’s judgements of others. Even as a dedicated virgin, as the Pentevangelion of James describes, there was still that very real threat of death by stoning or certainly a stained reputation. i too, never believed Mary experienced a true human birthing of her Child. Like light through glass, the transfer from Heaven to Mary’s arms took place. Leaving Mary, the pure untouched chalice of God. Such a blessing God gave us. Himself and the only totally pure mortal, walking this earth together. This to me is the twofold gift of Christmas.
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