Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph and the Angel

Here's a very fine homily by Deacon Nathan Allen, based on today's gospel, Matthew 1:18-24 -

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, 
but before they lived together, 
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame, 
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 
“Joseph, son of David, 
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit 
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, 
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, 

which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him 
and took his wife into his home.

Deacon Nathan preaches ...


I've always thought this passage (Matthew i.19) meant that St Joseph, being a 'just man', a righteous man, was going to send Mary away quietly because on the one hand he didn't want to expose her to infamy, but on the other he just couldn't see his way clear to marrying her if she was, as he quite naturally supposed, pregnant with another man's child. Now, Mary would certainly have told him about the visit from the angel, and all the angel said. But what the angel said was incredible, unbelievable, and it would be quite natural for St Joseph to be, oh, a bit sceptical. That's the interpretation all of our translations put on the text, based on how our Greek text is punctuated, and it's a quite natural interpretation. But the punctuation is not original; it was added by editors to make better sense of the text. And there is an entirely different interpretation possible, and to my mind one which seems to fit better with our understanding both of Our Lady and of St Joseph, if we change the punctuation slightly.

Note that the angel in the dream does not say to Joseph, "Don't suspect Mary of adultery, of being unfaithful to her promise to marry you." Rather, the angel says, "Do not fear to take Mary your wife." Instead of reading, "Do not fear to take Mary your wife <stop> for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit," let's try dropping the semicolon. If we do that, we get, "Do not fear to take Mary your wife because that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." That is, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home ON ACCOUNT OF THE FACT THAT the child she is carrying is of the Holy Spirit." That changes the meaning entirely, doesn't it!

Let's back up a bit to the Old Testament for some background. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was the most holy object in the Temple. It was housed in the most holy place in the Temple, the Holy of Holies: a place so sacred that only one person, the High Priest himself, ever entered that room, and only on one day a year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The story is told in II Samuel vi.6f how, when King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to his new capital Jerusalem, the oxen drawing the cart stumbled and a man named Uzzah reached out his hand to steady to Ark and was struck dead for touching so holy an object. St Joseph knows this story. Why is this relevant? Because the early Church Fathers often referred to Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.

The Ark in the Old Testament represented the Presence of God; but Mary bore within her womb Almighty God himself. The Ark contained the Tablets of the Law, the words of God written with the very finger of God; but Mary bore within her the Word Made Flesh. The Ark also contained the staff of Aaron which blossomed and bore fruit, signifying that Aaron and his descendants would be the priests of the Old Covenant; but Mary bore within her the Rod of Jesse's stem, the eternal High Priest of the New Covenant. The Ark also contained a jar of manna, that miraculous 'bread of angels' that fed the people of Israel on their journey for forty years through the wilderness to the Promised Land; but Mary bore within her the true Bread come down from Heaven that gives life to the world (John vi. 32f).

On this interpretation that I am proposing, therefore, St Joseph's dream strongly suggests that he is struggling not with disbelief, but with belief — and with a profound sense of his own unworthiness. He has come to believe what the angel said to Mary, and so he does not act like an outraged and betrayed man, but like a man who, as the months of Mary's pregnancy progressed, begins to feel more and more the crushing weight of his appointed task... and quite frankly a dread of the Holy One. Mary, as we said, would certainly have told him what the angel had said. And while he would naturally have been sceptical at first — conceived by the Holy Spirit; right! — his natural incredulity gives way to fear and awe as the weeks go by, and especially when the other things the angel said — about Elizabeth who had been barren being pregnant in her old age — started to come true. How dare he,a mere man, take Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, into his home? Joseph is a 'just man', which does not mean he feels an outraged sense of justice, but rather it means that he is devoted to the law of God and would not dare unless God commands otherwise to take to himself something — someone — whom God has consecrated for his own divine purposes. That I think is what St Joseph's dream means.

And how does that affect us? In a moment that same Jesus is going to be present on this altar in the hands of his priest, and we on our knees will acknowledge him, strike our breasts and say, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" — we will be saying what St Joseph was feeling. I know we don't often reflect on what a tremendous thing is happening when we receive the Eucharist. Presumption is more our failing, isn't it, than fear of our own unworthiness. It's become so routine for us that even if we make the effort to prepare to receive Our Lord, confessing whatever grave sins we know we've committed and so forth, still we only rarely are aware if at all of the tremendous mystery, of the crushing weight of glory we are celebrating. We dare to receive into ourselves the very Presence of God. We dare to bear Almighty God within us, taking his presence with us into the world. "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof," we rightly say, "but only say the word"... and he does say the word, because he is the Word, and our souls are healed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Great new insight, thanks for bringing it to our attention Kevin.