Joseph The Savior. Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent
In today’s readings, we read the line:
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
There is A LOT going on the background behind this line. There are Jewish religious rites. There is Jewish law. There is the threat of capital punishment. Mary is terrified, ashamed a bewildered. Joseph is an emotional hot mess. He is confused, angry, conflicted. This has relevance to us today. Sometimes our relationship with God is confusing. In such cases we need to:
- Affirm the feelings
- Integrate the emotions
- Pursue the pathway of our God-given purpose
John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals. He often wrote for the St. Louis University homily web site. In particular, he examined the cultural background behind various biblical narratives. Liturgical Press published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible. In his article, “Honoring God’s Will,” we look at the interesting backstory behind today’s Gospel.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families and not individuals. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. Both partners realized that their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families.
The entire marriage process is a ritualized removal of a woman from her family.
- The groom’s father offered gifts or services to the bride’s father to win the wife he wants for his son.
- The women of both families negotiated the contract to be certain neither family is shortchanged.
- The bride’s father made the final decision.
- The patriarchs of each family ratified the contract publicly.
- The groom was then responsible to provide or build room or domicile for the couple.
- When the groom took the bride into his home, the marriage process was completed (see Matthew 25:1-12).
In this rigidly gender-divided world, men and women had very little contact. Given the very nosey nature of Mediterranean village life, the separation of men from women, and the fact that the betrothed couple were not yet living together, Joseph may have been among the last to learn of Mary’s pregnancy. Women would have noticed that she was not participating in their obligatory monthly ritual purification. This put Joseph is a difficult predicament.
The honor code of the Mediterranean world demands that no one take what properly belongs to another. Mary’s child is not Joseph’s, so he hesitates to take the child. But if he doesn’t act quickly, she will be shamed.
Numbers 5:11-31 describes the shameful ordeal Mary would have to undergo in the midst of a public trial. If a person was detected as being unfaithful, the penalty was that the person was stoned to death. A pregnant woman would certainly have been proof. By law, Joseph was entitled to return Mary to her father and expose her to this penalty as seen in Deuteronomy 22:23. If Infidelity was undetected, if the man was simply jealous of another man or if he even suspected the woman was unfaithful, he could call for the following ritual to be performed:
- He is to take his wife to the priest.
- He must also take an offering of barley flour on her behalf.
- He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.
- The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.
- He shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water.
- The priest shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering
- The priest shall put the woman under oath and say, “If no other man has had relations with you and you have not gone astray, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband, you will be put under this curse that you become childless.”
- “‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
- “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water.
- The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar.
- The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar.
- After that, he is to have the woman drink the bitter water.
It was a shameful ordeal that Mary would have had to undergo in the midst of a public trial.
But Joseph is an honorable man. His sense of honor hopes that the rightful father will seize this opportunity to claim the child and marry the woman, Mary. He determines to divorce her leniently – and quietly.
What’s the relevance to us today?
Another Scripture scholar gets to the point of this narrative: In this Gospel, the state of affairs is not what it appears to be. Mary is not unfaithful, but faithful – to her faith, to the rites and rituals of the jewish religion, to the promises and assurances of her God (and nobody knows this). Mary is with child, but a virgin (and nobody know this). The infant is not only an earthly child, but also a heavenly One (and nobody knows this). The infant is not heaven-bound, but an earth-bound Emmanuel (but nobody knows this). Joseph is not the father, but accepts his step-father’s role to raise the child as his own and names the Child Jesus (because of a dream that nobody know about).
Both were in emotional turmoil. When the Spirit of God is at work, and we cooperate as did Mary and Joseph, you might also find yourself in an emotionally terrible situation . Affirm the feelings. Acknowledge that you’re struggling. Tell God that you are not happy the way things are developing. Why? Because you’re speaking truth. Jesus didn’t say “I will tell the truth.” Jesus didn’t say, “I only speak truth.” Jesus said “I AM the truth.” When you speak truth, Jesus is there – right in the middle of a messy situation.
“When the Spirit of God is at work, and we cooperate as did Mary and Joseph, something altogether new happens: mystery abounds, “God is with us.” But this only happens when we integrate our emotions. Father Harrison and Father Anthony are featured on the podcast “Clerically Speaking.” In Episode 70: “Cooking / Wrestling Deamons / 4 Senses,” startgin at about 18 minutes, they quote the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. Flannery writes about grace working through ordinary stuff and integrating your emotions within a proper Catholic spiritual concept. St. Francis de Sales once said, “You cannot be ruled by your emotions, but you have to pay attention to them, since it is there that the Holy Spirit resides.” You emotions have to be examined, integrated and purified – with prayer, with the Sacraments of the Church, with discernment.
When the Spirit of God is at work, and we cooperate as did Mary and Joseph, we receive the gifts of the “grace of apostleship” and “obedience of faith.” This enables us to begin to pursue the pathway of our purpose. The challenging times are not random. They are a spiritual training ground. When we begin to “cooperate with the ‘Spirit of holiness,’ as did Mary and Joseph, mystery abounds when we are willing to relinquish control and open ourselves to the unexpected.
This would indicate that God places each of us in strange, difficult, challenging – and mystical situations. He does this so that we can determine God’s special purpose for our life in order to fulfill God’s mysterious plan. This has to do with our role as disciples (See video below).