Seeing as we are in Year A of our three-year cycle of readings, most of our gospel proclamations will come from Matthew. As Matthew is one of the two gospels with infancy narratives (the other being Luke), we hear today of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. Unlike Luke, Matthew gives us no details of how Mary accepted the mission proposed to her by the angel to become pregnant via the Holy Spirit and to give birth to our Saviour. No, Matthew just tells us, in a rather ‘matter of fact’ manner; “When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. While Luke spends almost all of his telling of the birth of Jesus focusing on Mary, Matthew decides to tell us more about Joseph.
We are told that Joseph was a ‘righteous man’ who clearly had a deep love for Mary, as he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”. I took some time to find out what kind of ‘public disgrace’ Joseph was so determined to save Mary from and why would it matter to him? Remember, at this point in the story Joseph had not as of yet been visited by the angel, so as far as he knew, his fiancé was pregnant and not by him.
The law, in first century Palestine, allowed Joseph to have Mary stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) and actually obliged him to annul the marriage so as to not sully the line of David with impurity. Yet, Joseph opted for mercy. He looked at the situation at hand and decided that Mary would have a tough enough journey ahead of her without him making it worse. What a lesson for all of us who live in a world obsessed with making sure people get what’s coming to them.
What is unique about Joseph is that his first thoughts were of mercy and love, as opposed to retribution and condemnation. He loved Mary enough to know that there was much more to her than the situation she was currently in. This is not unlike the love God has for us. God sees us in our entirety, the good and the not so good. God sees past the ego in us that may not let us admit when we have wronged someone; God sees past the pride in us that may not allow us to humble ourselves and accept much needed help; and God sees past the hurt and the wounds that keep us from embracing the unconditional love that is offered us in the Incarnation.
Perhaps, that is the challenge of this wonderful season we are about to enter. Set aside the black and white letter of the law and instead choose mercy and forgiveness. At this time of year we spend a good deal of our time talking about Mary and the wonderful example she set for us as the first disciple, and rightfully so. But let’s not dismiss the lessons we can learn from Joseph. Be merciful when it doesn’t make sense; always protect the other’s dignity and love without judgment. That will bring peace on earth and good will to all God’s people.