Updated: Jan 14
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Around this time of year, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 mini-series classic, Jesus of Nazareth, is often shown on television. If you haven’t seen it before or if it’s been awhile, I encourage you to watch it. It’s one of the best screen portrayals of the gospels that I’ve seen.
Relating to the gospel passage we heard today, there’s a beautiful scene between Mary, portrayed by Olivia Hussey, and Joseph, played by Yorgo Voyagis, when Mary tells Joseph of her pregnancy and the circumstances surrounding it.
Joseph responds: “That’s too much for any man to believe”; to which, Mary counters, “but you are not any man. You too are chosen”. And she looks pleadingly at Joseph with total and innocent faith, at which Joseph can only leave the room, in anguish and confusion. Yorgo Voyagis is very skillful in portraying Joseph's response, balancing his intent to separate from Mary without explicitly casting an accusation against her character.
Scripturally, whenever we hear this scene of Joseph learning of Mary’s pregnancy, we can be tempted to imagine a Joseph that is in some way doubtful of Mary’s fidelity, to the extent that it takes something like a miraculous dream of an angel to restore his faith.
But there’s another interpretation of the text that is also valid. It’s the interpretation of Saint Bernard, who had cited the opinions of certain fathers of the Church. It’s also a position well summarized in a book titled, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, written by a Belgian theologian and scripture scholar named, Ignace de la Potterie in 1992.
The interpretation is this: when Joseph finds out about Mary pregnancy, rather than doubt her fidelity, he believes her. He takes her at her word. And the text supports this.
The text says very simply: she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Full stop. The text doesn’t say that Mary was found with child, and later on, was found to be by the Holy Spirit. Likely, Joseph found out about the pregnancy directly fromMary. And so, he understands two things simultaneously: first, that Mary is pregnant; and second, that her pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit. The two facts go together and are inseparable.
There is precedent in the history of Israel for miraculous conceptions. Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and even John the Baptist are on that list of those who were miraculously conceived.
Yet the question still remains: If Joseph believed that the child was the work of the Holy Spirit, then why would he intend to separate himself from Mary?
For a very simple reason: that’s precisely what a righteous man would do. The just man draws back in humility before the living God. He allows God to increase, while he himself decreases, as did John the Baptist. When God manifests himself and intervenes in human history, the just one steps back with holy fear, recoiling respectfully before the majesty of God.
It’s the reason why Peter would much later attempt to distance himself from Jesus, with the words: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. It was the reason why the centurion left his home while saying: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” It was the reason why Elizabeth would honestly ask with reverent humility: “How is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” It’s the reason why the tax collector from our Lord’s parable, would maintain a respectful distance in the Temple, while crying out: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am a sinner.” He dared not to even raise his eyes.
Joseph saw, with sacred astonishment, that Mary was uniquely filled with the Divine presence. He intended to separate himself from Mary because he believed that God had already claimed her, and that claim certainly superseded his own.
It wasn’t doubt in Mary’s chastity that prompted Joseph’s actions, but reverence before the living God. That’s why he wanted to separate from Mary quietly, so that she wouldn’t be exposed to shame. It would be unjust to shame her; and Joseph is the just man.
As to the rest of the text, we hear the angel confirm the situation, and also clarify Joseph’s role in God’s plan: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For certainly, it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her”—that’s an authentic translation of the original text—
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus”—that was Joseph’s role. Jesus would be heir to David’s throne through Joseph’s line. Biologically, they were unrelated, but legally by Jewish Law and Tradition, they would be father and son; so that Jesus truly could be called, Son of David.
This interpretation perhaps changes our understanding of Saint Joseph. It honors him a bit more, and puts him in a more heroic light, as the one whom God chose to be the guardian of the redeemer. God chose Joseph to be the human face of fatherhood to the Son of God. When Jesus first mouthed the word, Abba, as an infant, he was likely looking right at Joseph.
And this interpretation gives us another example of faith. When we are faced with the unexplainable, it shouldn’t take a miraculous dream to preserve our faith. Like Joseph, our faith is revealed in the face of the unknown. And when we do respond to circumstance, we do so with faith at every step, and with reverence before God; changing course when called to do so, in obedient response to divine inspiration. God bless you.
The Dream of Saint Joseph, by Anton Raphael Mengs. c. 1773 – 1774. Oil on oakwood. Kunsthistorisches Museum. [PUBLIC DOMAIN]