Joseph, being a righteous man...
Matthew’s gospel tells us that when Joseph heard that Mary, his betrothed wife, was found to be pregnant his decision was to dissolve their marriage quietly, without fuss or fervor. Rather than submit Mary to public shame or discipline for her perceived infidelity, Joseph instead chose to pursue righteousness by showing a measure of mercy and being content in simple divorce. The brevity and matter-of-factness employed by Matthew in his accounting of this can give the impression that Joseph’s demeanor was of the same ilk: Calm, cool, and mostly unruffled by the apparent betrayal of his wife. What’s more likely is that Joseph felt what most people would in that situation, a potent mixture of anger, betrayal, loss, and despair.
The Gospels do not detail for us how deep into the time of betrothal Mary and Joseph had progressed when God saw fit to upend two very normal lives and gloriously ruin them forever. Traditionally there was a year between the betrothal ceremony and the consummation of those vows into a proper union of man and wife. During that time the groom primarily prepared for his marriage in two ways, he set his house in order and sought to fully win his wife’s affection. These are the pursuits in which Joseph was likely engaged when the news reached him. He was entrenched in the 1st-centruy equivalent of planning his next date with Mary. He was reading a how-to manual on hanging drywall, and then checking his bank account to see if his meager budget could make room for hiring a subcontractor for that particular job. He was making plans, spinning dreams, and maybe even writing really bad poetry for his wife, complete with horrible carpenter metaphors.
And then Gabriel showed up and those dreams disappeared like sawdust in a strong puff of breath.
No, Joseph probably wasn’t as unrattled and unflapped as Matthew might lead you to believe. When he went to bed that night he was sleeping in a house in which every corner there was a dream that would never come true and a hope that would never be fulfilled. Joseph fell asleep, confident that he had done the righteous thing, but heart-broken that it had to be done at all. When the same meddling angel that started this appeared to him in his dream, Joseph was faced with a choice. Be righteous, as he knew to be, and have his normal life rebuilt and restored, or choose a special kind of foolishness and lose it all, for the sake of Immanuel.
Make no mistake, what Joseph was asked to do was foolish by every human measure. Marry an unfaithful bride, raise a bastard son, and give away whatever social status and dignity he might have accrued in his community. Why? Because he had a dream, a nightmare of a great, glowing man telling him his pregnant bride-to-be was somehow still a virgin. And that the child in her womb was actually the Son of God, was prophecy fulfilled, was salvation made flesh. Once Joseph set his heart to believe the word of God and receive the Word of God, there was no going back.
I like to think that Joseph didn’t wait long to go after that night to go and bring Mary home. The hopeless romantic in me likes to imagine that he finished whatever work he had to do to make their home sound enough to inhabit, and then he pulled his tuxedo out of the closet and went to find his wife.
The custom then was that the groom would be preceded by a runner, somehow to raise the call that the wedding was about to take place, the betrothal about to be consummated. Maybe he would ask a friend, maybe he would send a fleet-footed relative to tell Mary, “Joseph is coming.” A crowd would gather behind the groom as he traveled because, after all, who doesn’t like a party? I would imagine a much different crowd gathered behind Joseph. Family trying to dissuade him, friends asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. A few gawkers and gossips wanting to see if he was indeed going marry that woman or maybe have her stoned. And who doesn’t like a good stoning?
In the parable Jesus tells of the wise and foolish virgins, the groom takes his journey at dusk, and darkness is thick by the time the wedding party reaches the bride’s home. There are torches, loud voices, maybe a pitchfork or two if they had farmers for friends. In other words, a wedding party might be as little as a couple of facial expressions removed from a mob. Especially this one.. I’m not sure Mary knew which one to expect after being told, “Joseph is coming.” But once she saw his face, and took his hand, she knew why he was there.
When a betrothal was consummated into a completed marriage, the main event of the evening was the mingling of two into one, the union of the flesh. The newly-married couple would step out of the main hall into a side bedroom and do the deed while the best man stood at the door and listened for the voice of the groom. When he heard…whatever it was he was supposed to hear, he would raise a shout and the wedding party would begin in full swing.
But Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary had no such moment, shared no such (awkward) joy with their friends and family. Joseph “kept Mary a virgin,” we’re told, meaning that in following the word of God, Joseph sacrificed what was meant to be one of the most significant moments of his life. His wedding night wasn’t spent exulting in the joy of his union with Mary, it was spent holding her hand amidst of quickly-thinning throng of awkward well-wishers. Every “congratulations” was tempered by eyes cutting to an expanded womb; every “So happy for you two!” soured by sight of the gritted-teeth of a forced smile.
Maybe they walked home alone that night, hand-in-hand, exchanging angel stories, marveling at the strangeness of it all, asking each other “What happens next?” Maybe as Joseph held Mary in their bed for the first of a lifetime of nights together, he made her laugh, lightened her heart. Maybe he did that thing father’s-to-be do where they rub their hand over their wife’s swelling abdomen and marvel at its strange beauty. Or maybe he sang Solomon’s love song to her,
“How beautiful you are, my darling,
how beautiful you are!
Your eyes are like doves
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
and there is no blemish in you.”
A few months later Joseph would again lie beside his wife and hold her; her womb now empty, their arms full. Maybe he sang again, a dangerous habit for a carpenter, one would imagine. Maybe he savored the bittersweet knowledge that his first-born son would never be his first-born son, but was the only-begotten of God. Maybe he thought of all the prophecies this little baby was meant to fulfill and was amazed. Or maybe, as he held God in his arms and sang a lullaby, he just rested in knowing that the life he gave away those months ago was a small price to pay in exchange for Immanuel.
Maybe he realized being righteous wasn't enough, you have to be wrecked and ruined by the Gospel before you can feel it wrap its fingers around yours, look you in the eye, and smile.