Of all the figures in the story of Our Lord’s Nativity, the one most often overlooked is Joseph. However, those who chose the designs for the stained glass in our East Window decided to include Joseph and depicted him as a worker of wood. It is fair to say that today’s Gospel finds Joseph in a particularly awkward situation. He is described in verse 19 as a ‘just man’. Just or righteous in this context means that he obeys Jewish Law. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states that:

‘If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’ (Deut 22:23-24)

Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and preparing to be married, but strictly speaking under Jewish Law because she is pregnant, Mary is guilty of a capital crime. It is perhaps for this reason that Mary spends time out in the country with her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s account. Joseph loves Mary, and rather than see her killed or publicly humiliated he wants to put an end to the marriage. It is at this moment that the Angel Gabriel appears to him in a dream saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20-21)

Joseph is a descendant of David, a member of Israel’s Royal Family, an awkward fact when the current occupier of the throne was put there by the Romans as a pliant puppet king. The angel says to Joseph, ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid!’ Again and again God speaks to His people to tell them to be of good heart, to reassure and encourage them. God loves His people, there is nothing to be afraid about. The angel is clear: the child that will be born is of the Holy Spirit, He will be the Son of God, and His name will be Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. Jesus means ‘God saves’ which is exactly what Jesus does. At a practical level the angel’s message to Joseph is to put him at ease, to stop him worrying. The message is Good News, the Gospel of Salvation is announced.

To reinforce this fact St Matthew then quotes a prophecy of Isaiah, which is also found in the first reading today:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23)

The prophecy is fulfilled, there will be a son born to the House of David, who will be God with us (Immanuel), and He will save His people from their sins. This is why we celebrate Christmas, because it is the coming of our Saviour. What does is mean to say that God is with us? Is it an expression of solidarity? Or something more? In Jesus God is with us, and shares our human life, from birth to death. Christ is not some remote divine figure, but one intimately acquainted with all of human existence. God is not external, but someone who understands us, and loves us. Someone whose entire existence is about communicating Divine Love and Reconciliation. The Church has been proclaiming the same message of hope and salvation for the past two thousand years.

He will save his people from their sins’: the angel’s words to Joseph could not be clearer. Jesus is God’s rescue mission, to save humanity from their sins. This vocation leads to the Cross, and so as we prepare to celebrate His Birth, we know that His life will end here, on Cross. It is significant that in our stained glass window Joseph, who we usually associate with Christ’s birth is depicted with the tools to create a cross, reminding us of how the story concludes As we prepare the most joyous of feasts, we are mindful of the cost of God’s love.

It is important to notice what Joseph does when the dream is over:

‘When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.’ (Mt 1:24-25)

Joseph did as the angel commanded him. He was obedient. He listened and obeyed. Joseph is complete opposite of Ahaz, in today’s first reading, who neither listens to God nor obeys Him. Joseph is obedient in naming his son: ‘And he called his name Jesus’ (Mt 1:25). Jesus too will be obedient. His is an obedience to the Father’s will borne out through suffering, death and resurrection which characterises the mission of the Son, this is what brings about our salvation. We in obedience look for His second coming as our Saviour and our Judge. As Christians we are called to take time to ponder these mysteries — to stop for a while amid the business of our modern existence and reflect upon the wondrous nature of God’s love for us and all humanity: We are to take this opportunity to stop and to ponder this wondrous fact, to reflect upon what ‘God-with-us’ means to us and our lives..

As the people of God, members of the Christian Church which we enter through our baptism, we are all called to proclaim the Good News, and to live out the story of Jesus in our lives. We urge the world to stop and to consider exactly what is being celebrating at Christmas: a free gift, of hope and salvation for all people, in a baby, born in a stable, among the poor and the marginalised.

The act of love which we will experience in Our Lord’s Nativity should draw us to love God and our neighbour, and to live out the love which becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This same love will become flesh and blood that we touch and taste, here, this morning, through the bread and wine, feeding us, so that we might share His divine life. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us imitate the mystery we celebrate, let us be filled with and transformed by the divine life of love. Let us, like Mary and Joseph, wait on the Lord and be transformed by him, to live out our faith in our lives so that the world might believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Anxiety of St Joseph (Brooklyn Museum)

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