19 Mar Transcribed talks – Lessons from the Life of St Joseph – Fr Joseph Edattu VC
This reflection is based on the Gospel of Matthew 1:18-24
During Christmas, we usually read the nativity story in great detail from the Gospel of Luke. However, Matthew wrote the nativity story from the eyes of Saint Joseph, which gives a different perspective. In order to understand Saint Joseph, particularly why he doubted Mother Mary and planned to divorce her, we need to focus on the background story. We also need to understand Mother Mary‘s birth and the way she was brought up. Although we do not know much about the lives of Saint Joseph and Mother Mary from the Bible, there are some Apocryphal books which were very much active and prevalent in the second and third centuries. These books provide us with more details of their childhoods.
The story of Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim
There is also a special story regarding Mother Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim. They had become old and were barren. They had prayed to God and promised that as soon as they had a child, they would give the child to God. One day, an Angel appeared to Anna and told her she would give birth. She was told to expect Joachim to come running to her with the same message from the Angel as confirmation. After the Angel disappeared, Joachim indeed came running to tell her they would have a child.
The child, Mary, was born and brought up with maximum love and care. Her parents gave her the best of everything. Nothing dirty touched her body; she wore the best of clothes and was never taken to any unclean places. Her parents even had a small chapel inside their home where she was brought up. After a few years, Mary was expected to join the priests in the Temple (where her upbringing would continue). Although not officially accepted by the Church, these events follow the Apocryphal books used in the early centuries.
Anna and Joachim decided to offer Mary to the Temple when she was three years old. They were worried that this would hurt the child. After praying, they decided to place the child in front of the priest. If the child were to follow the priest and not look back, they would accept this as a sign that God has taken the child. If the child chose not to follow the priest, they would take the child home. Indeed, the moment Mary saw the priest, she ran into the temple, dancing and praising. She did not even look back at her parents, who by then knew that this was the Will of God. They surrendered the child to the temple and left. Within a short time, Anna and Joachim had passed away as they were already old. P
Mother Mary handed over to Joseph
Mother Mary was now an orphan and grew up under the priests’ responsibility. When she was nearly 12 years old, it was clear she was reaching physical maturity and, as a result, the Temple would become defiled (for in those days, the mentality of the people was ritualistic.) The Chief Priest had to intervene; he was aware that this was a child of God and given by the Lord and so the priests prayed for a decision about Mary. An Angel instructed them to call together all the widowers from Jerusalem and select one man to whom they would hand over the child for marriage.
The priests informed all the people around the city, and all the widowers came to the Temple without knowing the reason why. One of the men was Joseph, who was a widower. He was not very old, and was living on his own. He came with a staff in his hand, for in those days almost all men carried a staff during their long journeys. All the widowers were told to place their staff under the altar in front of the Lord. After they prayed, the men retrieved their staff. It is believed that Joseph’s staff budded with flowers, just like Aaron’s staff in the Old Testament. This was taken as a sign that Joseph was the one for Mary. Even today, when we see pictures of the Holy Family, Joseph is usually shown carrying a flower in his hand.P
Joseph and Mary’s engagement
Joseph became engaged to Mary, who was around 12 years old. When their betrothal was celebrated, Joseph was initially hesitant because she was so young. According to Jewish tradition, for a marriage to take place, there would first be an engagement, although this was not compulsory. The betrothal followed, which consisted of a one year waiting period before marriage. Betrothal was compulsory and was considered equal to marriage. The couple were now husband and wife but were not allowed to live or sleep together.
Following their betrothal, Joseph took Mother Mary to his home. Joseph was a righteous man. He knew he had to keep a distance from Mary and avoid all kinds of misunderstandings in the neighbourhood. Joseph bought all the supplies necessary for Mother Mary to take care of herself to live there. He then left, as his plan was to come back after one year when he could finally take Mary as his wife. Consequently, Mother Mary was left to live on her own. Almost nine months after the betrothal, the Annunciation took place: the Angel Gabriel came to her, and we know she became pregnant. When this happened, Mary knew it would be a terrible thing in society as she would be accused of fornication and adultery; the punishment would be severe and result in death. Yet Mother Mary accepted this and did not worry as she said, “Let it be done according to your Will”.
Shortly afterwards, Mary went to Elizabeth in the Judean hill country. Mary was so focused on helping others, instead of herself, and took care of Elizabeth for three months. Afterwards she went back to the house of Joseph. When Joseph returned to discover that she was pregnant, he questioned how this could be. She had no answers except what was told by the Angel of the Lord. Joseph could not believe this, for never in history had anyone become pregnant from the Holy Spirit. There were miraculous births in the Old Testament, but nothing like this.
Joseph was clearly very confused and felt bad about Mother Mary. Initially, he believed she had sinned. He had only a few options: the first would be to tell the whole world and the Temple priests that she had committed fornication. This would result in her being punished according to the law of Moses, which meant being stoned to death. We cannot blame Joseph for considering this, for this was the Old Testament law. The second option would be to dismiss her secretly. This would mean only informing a few people that he did not want to marry her. However, everyone would still come to know she became pregnant during the time he was away.
What did “secretly dismissing her” actually mean? Many Bible scholars believe that Joseph planned to leave Nazareth early the next morning, and never return. In so doing, everyone would gather that Joseph himself failed to keep a distance and was responsible for the pregnancy. Therefore, Mary would be saved. She could then continue to live in his home which was already built and well-provided for.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah Took place in this way. when his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matthew.1:18-19)
Though Joseph loved Mary, he did not want to cooperate with sin, as he believed she had sinned. Yet he did not want to accuse Mary of cheating. He considered leaving quietly so that he would take the blame. This attitude was uncommon for Jewish men in the first century as men held the power over the women. He could have used this opportunity to attack, insult, and punish her. But Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to hurt Mary.
When we find that our life partner has committed a terrible sin, the first thing we may do is shout, scream, call all family members and tell everyone of the sin. We may message all the prayer groups as if being broadcasted on the BBC. What we are actually doing is bringing our life partner into public disgrace. This is why many families are destroyed, separated and unable to reconcile. In this modern world, we need to reflect on Saint Joseph and what he tried to do to protect his wife. At the moment Joseph tried save her, God intervened to save them. When you try to protect your life partner who has sinned, God will step in to protect you and your whole family. When you try to accuse, blame, and insult your life partner who has sinned, God will accuse you. As you have done it shall be done to you. You will be judged by your own words; the accusation that you use for others will be used against you too.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the holy spirit. (Matthew 1:20)
What does this passage tell us? Joseph had decided to save Mother Mary by secretly dismissing her, and then by escaping. He was going through a tough and confusing time. But until he had made this decision, the right decision, God had not intervened. When you are about to make a decision, you may not feel God is involved. But if you make the right decision, then that will be the time God intervenes. For every decision you plan to take, God waits to see what you are going to do. If your choice is based on what is right and best, God will intervene to give you an even better option. We all expect God to make decisions for us when we are in confusion. Rather, God wants us to select the right path ourselves. If we take the selfish path, then there is no escape, we have to go with the selfish path, but then we should not expect God’s blessing. Out of all the paths in front of us, if we choose the most suitable, holy, selfless, and innocent one, God will give a better path to take. But God wants us to show our real selves, our real spirit. When Joseph made the decision not to harm, but to protect his wife, the Angel of the Lord then appeared in a dream.
We can find this Bible passage shocking, for the Angel only came to Joseph in a dream, rather than physically. Contrast this to the actual appearance of Angel Gabriel with Mother Mary, who was able to question the Angel and ask how the birth could be possible. When Joseph was told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife (for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit) Joseph never asked questions. He could have argued with the Angel, or even asked for more proof. But this was only a dream. Yet what did Joseph do? He believed: 100% blind belief. Up until this point, he had thought that Mother Mary was a sinner, and that the child was a consequence of her sin. But now the Angel was telling him to take that sinner and take the consequence of her sin to himself. This is why Joseph was righteous.
What is righteousness.? Righteousness is taking another’s sin and the consequences of the sin to yourself without complaining, blaming or accusations. For instance, suppose there was someone in your community who had made a mistake and was to be punished. If you felt bad for that person and took on their sin and the repercussions, you would become righteous. This act is seen in many of the lives of the saints who took responsibility for the sins of another. The saints would have gone through terrible pain as a result, but they were willing to save that person.
Once there was a couple who came to the retreat centre. They were in trouble: the wife had confessed to her husband, out of anger, that he was not the father of their first child. This was a huge shock for him, and he did not know what to do. He went to church and found himself opening the Bible. The scripture was about Joseph taking Mary as his wife. As he read, the Lord told him to take on her sin. The child was a consequence of her sin, but he vowed to take the child as his own and protect them from knowing. He told his wife that he knew she wanted to hurt him, but he still loved her and would not complain, as the problem was now his. From that moment, the wife felt completely broken and full of guilt. She felt unable to love the child. It was at this point that they came for the retreat. During that week, God convinced her that she was forgiven. Afterwards she felt she could love again, as well as love her husband even more.
A righteous man is like Joseph, a man who never complained, doubted, or questioned. He took his dream seriously and obeyed because he knew God was instructing him. After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, while Joseph slept by his newly-born baby and wife, he had another dream.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “ get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him”. (Matthew 2:13)
It is important to remember that this was an ordinary family. The child was not born in a palace but in a manger. Nobody knew who they were, and yet suddenly an Angel in a dream tells Joseph to get up and take his family to Egypt. They had never been to Egypt. It was midnight, and Joseph might have thought this was a horrible dream. After all, why would Herod, a big leader and king, be searching for his small child? What would Herod want, and how would he find them? There must have been many questions in Joseph’s mind. But what did he do next? Joseph obeyed (even if it was midnight, and even if it was a dream). Compare this to ourselves; God comes to tell us very clearly what to do in the Bible, yet we still do not obey Him.
When Joseph woke up Mother Mary, she could have told him to be quiet and go back to sleep. She was, after all, the mother of Almighty God! When we consider the Holy Family, Jesus and Mary were full of holiness. Joseph was an ordinary man just like all of us. He was righteous, of course, but his holiness could not be compared to that of Jesus and Mary. However, Mother Mary obeyed Joseph because he was the head of the family. The head of the family is a ministry; it is not a role of power or authority. The mother is the heart of the family. God created this structure for every family to follow and it is important to understand this.
When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, it was Eve who committed sin first. Adam committed sin second. But when God came, He did not say, “Eve, where are you?”. God called for Adam because he was the head of the family, whereas Eve was created from Adam’s ribs and was the heart of the family.
Today, the whole world is confused with matters to do with equality and feminism. From a Biblical sense, we should understand that for certain things, a woman must obey the husband, and for other things, a husband must obey the wife. Complementarity is possible between husband and wife, but not equality. A husband cannot be equal to the wife, and a wife cannot be equal to the husband because of their different ministries. This is about complementing each other, and together becoming one.
In the New Testament, Mary was the one who received the salvation message from the Angel, and she received it only once. After that, all divine inspirations were given to Joseph for him to lead, guide, and protect the family. Even if, say, a wife was more brilliant or intelligent than the husband, she must still accept her own ministry. For instance, two prime ministers in one country would be a terrible thing. God has established, for the family, an authority, a system, and a structure, and it would be dangerous not to follow this.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing – for that would be harmful to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
It is also worth remembering that the census was taking place in Bethlehem at the time. Joseph did not need to take his pregnant wife on a long journey with him just for the census. So why did he take her? Joseph had to keep Mary away from their village for some time otherwise the people would soon come to know about her pregnancy and realise the timings did not match up (Joseph only returned to her when she was three months pregnant). It would be years before they would return with the child, but by then people would not be confused or suspecting. So the Holy Family travelled straight to Egypt from Bethlehem.
Pre-shadows of Joseph in the Old Testament
On reflection of this Bible story, we wonder if there are any pre-shadowing examples of Joseph in the Old Testament (for we know many typology examples of Mary, and of Jesus). There is one Joseph of the Old Testament: Joseph the son of Jacob, who had twelve sons. In the New Testament, Saint Joseph’s father was also Jacob. What was special about Joseph of the Old Testament was that he was also a dreamer. The Old Testament Joseph also suffered temptations against the holiness of his body; Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar. Joseph had every opportunity to commit sin with her and get away with it, for he was loved and trusted by the family. Even though Potiphar was unaware of his wife’s secret infatuation, Joseph kept the holiness of his body.
In the New Testament, Joseph also had the right to a physical relationship with Mother Mary, but he abstained. There are many reasons for this, the most important being that Joseph was righteous. His responsibility was to take care and protect his family. He would have never touched a woman even if legally permitted, and especially not the woman who was already the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Joseph always kept a distance from Mother Mary out of love, respect, and honour to her.
Because he protected his body, the Old Testament Joseph lost all his authority and ended up in prison. But God saved him. Whilst in prison he interpreted the dreams of some prisoners. Afterwards Pharaoh entrusted him with rule over all of Egypt. In the New Testament, the Heavenly Father entrusted His own Son and the family to Joseph. Entrusting Mother Mary and the child Jesus effectively meant entrusting the whole universe to Joseph. This is why Saint Joseph is the patron and custodian of families, the Holy Catholic Church, and protector of virgins. Joseph of the Old Testament also saved Israel by bringing his whole family to Egypt. The New Testament Joseph saved the Holy Family by taking them to Egypt. Again, we see so many connections between the two Josephs.
Many people question if Joseph and Mother Mary ever had a physical relationship (after the birth of Jesus). Firstly, this is nonsense and Biblically incorrect. Secondly, if anyone were to look into the Old Testament, they would get a complete understanding of the New. Thirdly, the Bible says that Joseph was a righteous man. How could he even dare touch a woman who was the spouse of someone else, let alone the spouse of the Holy Spirit! Additionally, the Bible mentions that there were “brothers” of Jesus. We all know that these were in fact Jesus’ cousins, some of whom were not so good characters. How could anyone ever think that Mother Mary gave birth to these people from the very same womb where Jesus the Almighty God was born. Therefore, it is important we do not believe any such kinds of wrong teaching, or anything that diminishes the very quality of Jesus.
The year of St Joseph
Pope Francis has declared this year as the year of Saint Joseph, the protector of the church, protector of families, and protector of virgins. So, let us pray to St Joseph in a special way. Please make sure you have a special devotion to him. For even when Joseph sleeps, he protects and takes care of the church. From today, ask for the intercession of Saint Joseph to guard you and protect your family.
St Joseph, pray for us.