‘Joseph was a righteous man.” Modern readers likely do not hear the ominous undertones of this description. The Greek word for righteous, dikaios, could also indicate that Joseph was a “law-abiding” man. This meant that he considered submitting Mary to the penalties given in Deuteronomy for women found to be pregnant before marriage. “If evidence of a young woman’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the young woman to the entrance of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death….” (Dt 22:20-21). That Joseph may have been willing to consider this gruesome fate for his betrothed demonstrates his personal commitment to Israel’s covenant and the law of Moses.
Such zealotry was not in Joseph’s nature, as Matthew immediately points out. “Yet he was unwilling to expose her to shame, so he decided to divorce her quietly.” The existence of this legal remedy gives some sign that many Jews found the strictures of Deuteronomy too harsh in this case. Quiet divorce, however, was not a hopeful prospect; it might have let Mary and her child live, but an unmarried mother had few options for a livelihood. Most likely she and her son would have sunk into poverty.
On his own, Joseph could not recognize the right thing to do without the help of the angel. To his everlasting credit, he followed the angel’s instructions without hesitation. He had obeyed God’s commands all his life. Although he had always found them in the law of Moses, the lack of good options available to him there led his heart to trust God’s command through the angel. The suddenness of his transformation shows he took to heart the angel’s command, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph now understood that righteousness required him to serve the unborn Messiah, no matter the sacrifices required.
Do we pay attention to the messengers God sends us? As Joseph depended on the law of Moses, we rightly depend on a set of principles and rules for living out our faith and relationship with God. But, as valuable as these codes are, however much they communicate God’s will, they cannot cover every situation. We will inevitably find ourselves perplexed.
We can trust God to send a messenger. These messengers need not be as dramatic as Joseph’s nighttime visitor in order to speak authentically. In fact, as the first reading teaches, we can actively resist a clear message that God offers. God will send it anyway. We will know the messenger’s arrival when we hear the words “Do not be afraid.” These can be words from a friend or a stranger, a profoundly moving encounter with beauty or a subtle but deep change of heart. When we hear that message, we hear Christ inviting us to serve his mission in some new way.
Joseph trusted the messenger without hesitation. This freedom was the product of a life spent applying God’s word to daily life. No matter what else one might say about the Law of Moses, living it out demanded a rich knowledge of sacred Scripture. If, like Joseph, we have listened for God’s voice in expected places, we too will be ready to trust an unexpected messenger from God.
Joseph had formed himself into a certain kind of righteous man, but Christ’s mission demanded something very different. Joseph handed his understanding of righteousness over to God, and received it back in a new way. Such an act reflects St. Ignatius’ words in the Suscipe, “You have given all to me; to you I return it. Dispose of it entirely according to your will.” Joseph’s new righteousness made him one of the first to serve the kingdom of God. Our own transformation can make us servants of Christ’s mission in our own day.
This, then, is part of the Advent message of today’s readings. Far from simply announcing the birth we celebrate next week, these readings give us a model for encountering Christ and serveing his mission throughout the year. When God’s messengers arrive, if we trust their word, we can find in it the enlightenment of a new life in Christ.