One of the puzzles of the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus is: why was Joseph not informed earlier? Why did Gabriel communicate the news of Jesus’ birth to Mary and then delay communicating it to Joseph?
Gabriel could have saved Joseph from a lot of suffering. As it was, Joseph learned of Jesus’ pregnancy, 3 months after the fact, when Mary returned from helping Elizabeth. This is part of a pattern we can see with God’s way of dealing with men and women. God tests those whom he loves and draws his closest disciples through what has been called a night of faith. But, after the night of faith, there is always a deeper dawn. This story draws from Matthew Chapter 1:18-25 and tells the story of Joseph’s experience of spiritual night.
The Bond of Marriage Broken?
Mary returned from the home of Elizabeth to her parent’s home in Nazareth. It had been three months since the encounter with the angel and the mystery that happened thereafter. Her pregnancy was showing.
Joseph happened to be there, at her parent’s home, working on a project for Mary’s father. When Joseph saw Mary approach and then descend from the donkey, his heart fell. He saw the shape of Mary’s stomach. It was the shape of a young mother’s stomach. Mary looked pregnant. But how could this be?
“Mary, what has happened?” he said. “What’s this?”
“Joseph, it’s not what you think,” she replied.
“So it’s true, you’re pregnant? You go away for three months and come back pregnant? Mary, how could you? How could you?!”
He turned back to the house, gathered his tools and quickly placed them in his tool bag. Mary was waiting there, a tear streaking down her cheek. Joseph turned and looked at her.
“Mary, how could you? I don’t know what to say. I must go,” he said.
With that he turned, exited the courtyard and walked quickly back to the new house he had just finished building, in anticipation of their wedding. It was late. About 5 pm.
Mary entered her parents’ house. Anne and Joachim took one look at her, her radiant, sorrowful face. Her abdomen showed signs of motherhood. They knew the vow Mary had taken, to consecrate herself to God. They knew Mary’s character.
“Mary – what? What is this?” they stammered.
“Elizabeth is well. She is healthy. The baby will be strong in the Lord. The baby will be born soon. She has good help. I had to come home. You can see I am showing. I didn’t want to distract from the joy of their child’s birth with questions about me.”
“What do you mean questions about you? Mary what is this? What has happened?”
“Mother, Father, I can’t speak of it now. My heart is broken. Joseph has seen me. He doesn’t understand.”
“Mary, we don’t understand. Tell us, what has happened?”
“Not now. Please. The Lord is doing something with me. Even I scarcely understand. I must go rest and pray. I have had a long day.”
So Mary retired to her room. She fell to the floor, first on her knees, then placed her forehead against the floor, prostrated herself before a God she knew to be there, and wept. She prayed as Hannah once prayed, long ago, pouring out her mother’s heart to God in grief and supplication.
Meanwhile, back at Joseph’s house. He was pacing. He didn’t feel like eating. Couldn’t bring himself to pray. He felt betrayed. Angry. Did she lie to him? Did God mislead him into taking this young pious girl to be his wife? Mary had professed such deep longing to follow the ways of God with Joseph. She had shared with him that she wanted their marriage to be consecrated to God in a way he knew few marriages to be. That she herself wanted to be consecrated to God in prayer and sacrifice, like a priestess. That he was to be her co-laborer in this call. A little like Zechariah and Elizabeth, a life of service to the people of God, a marriage with no children, but rich in love of God and service to the needs of the people and the needs of the worshiping community at the Temple.
He had believed her. He had become betrothed to her! He had built a house for her! He had put his reputation beside hers, behind hers. And now he was going to look like a fool and he would live in this damn house alone. A man who had been duped and publicly shamed!
He was devastated. He felt so let down. By both Mary and by God. How could he not have seen this? He was blinded by Mary’s piety. He was blinded by some childish notion that God would take care of those who sought him. Would take care of him because he was seeking God.
These were his thoughts. He did not speak them. They washed over him. They defeated him. They stabbed him with their thousand tips of nails. His spirit was like broken glass.
It was now 7pm. It was dark. A crescent moon rose and hung in the nighttime sky, somehow looking sorrowful, yet full of pregnant hope. Joseph did not see it. He wasn’t looking. He was working, now mindlessly, on finishing a cabinet for a client. He needed to get his mind off his grief.
It did him good to sand, to smooth the wood, the make the joints invisible, to see a work that was solid, that was true, that would bring joy to his customers, that would do some good in the world.
“I just can’t believe she did this…” the sorrow rose again in his heart. “I just can’t believe it. I believed in her. How could she? God, how could you lead me into such a situation?”
He finished the cabinet. It was beautiful.
I have to get out of here. Walk. Pray. He thought to himself. I can’t handle being in this house by myself. I feel like I’m suffocating.
It was quiet outside. Families were sitting in their gathering rooms, having eaten dinner and cleaned up. They were sitting by fires, talking quietly, the way couples and families do. The way Joseph had hoped he would one day do with Mary.
Joseph stepped into the dusty street. His head was down. The stars danced and twinkled above him, but he didn’t see them. He was headed out of town, toward a grove of trees that he liked to visit when he needed to clear his head. He reached it in 15 minutes. There he could walk, listen to the wind whisper through the olive and cypress branches. And try to find some peace.
He kneaded his memories like dough in his hands, like clay at the wheel of a potter. What had happened? Where had he gone wrong?
He remembered Mary as a young child. The radiance of her face, her eyes. Her purity, her kindness. He remembered how she would help her parents bring food and medicinal herbs to the poor people in their community. He remembered her spirit of obvious depth and devotion in the Temple each Sabbath. He remembered that look of deep understanding she shot him, when his family had gone to celebrate the Sabbath meal with hers 1 year ago. How perfectly poised she was. In possession of herself. Upright. Yet joyful. Full of this uncommon love and goodness that was at once vertical, shooting like a ray of light upwards to heaven, yet also radiating horizontally, toward anyone around her.
There beneath the trees, between the wafts of winds that gently swirled, Joseph had some kind of intuition. Mary couldn’t have been unfaithful. It wasn’t in her nature.
But this wave crashed and shattered like a wine glass upon the shore of reality. Because Mary was pregnant! And it wasn’t his child.
Joseph turned. Someone was in the grove with him. He hadn’t noticed anyone approach.
“Joseph. I heard from Mary’s parents. I thought I might find you here.”
It was Joseph’s father, Jacob.
“Yes, father? What did you hear? That she betrayed me?”
“I heard she is pregnant. I heard Elizabeth is pregnant. I heard that Mary returned from helping Elizabeth for 3 months and that she is pregnant.”
“Did she tell them what happened? Who is the man?” asked Joseph.
“They don’t know. Mary hasn’t told them. She went to her room when she got home and hasn’t come out.”
“I just can’t believe it. On the one hand, this is so completely unlike Mary. On the other hand . . . ” Joseph could not complete the thought.
“Son, she is a good young woman. We know that. Her parents, Anne and Joachim, are good people. We don’t know what happened. But we do know that God is good. He is faithful. God, in his wisdom, will see this thing through to its end. Your job is to be faithful. To be just and true. Like a stone at the base of a building. Be just and good and true, my son, and the Lord will build the thing. He is going to build something and He will make you a part of it.”
“I don’t understand, father.”
“Son, understanding is not always given to us. The path to take is sometimes to be taken with faith, not with understanding.”
“Well, you know what the Law says, father. She has been unfaithful. I must denounce her. She will pay for this adultery. It will be horrible.”
“Yes, that is one path you have before you. The other is to divorce her quietly. Knowing Mary, it may be that there is some other explanation for what has happened. If you divorce her quietly, that allows you to do the just and true thing, while allowing Mary the space for God to do what is just and true with her.”
He fell silent. The advice was heavy. But it was true.
The silence stood there, for a few moments, like a great tree when there is no wind.
In time, Joseph spoke: “Ok, father, I can see that. I will do it. It’s the best thing. Maybe there is some explanation. Maybe there is.”
“I will pray for you, son. I will pray.”
“Thank you, father.”
Jacob put both his hands on his son’s shoulders. He looked him square in the eyes and held him in his gaze. Joseph’s eyes were still sad. He looked away as a tear started to form. Didn’t want his dad to see him crying.
“I know son. I am sad with you. But the path of the just man sometimes weaves through the valley of tears. Yet we know that those who sow in tears will…
“Reap rejoicing,” Joseph finished the psalm his Dad began. “Yes, you’re right. I can’t see the way. But I will take the path you have suggested. I will trust.”
“God bless you, my son,” said Jacob, and turned to walk back down the path toward Nazareth.
Joseph took a few more turns, back and forth, in the trees, resolving in his mind what he was going to do, praying about it. He even prayed for Mary. Lord, protect her. Lord, you know what is best. I ask you to resolve this matter.
He laid his prayer upon the stirring winds and let them carry it upwards to heaven, like rising incense. Then he turned and trudged back towards Nazareth and his home. His steps still heavy but his heart a little lighter. He walked through the village unseen, entered his home and went to bed.
At 3 am, he awoke with a start. Some strange thing had happened. He felt like water, transluced with light, had been thrown upon his heart, inside his body. Such a thing, of course, cannot happen – or so we might think. But something did happen inside of him. Like a blanket of light laid directly upon his mind and heart, inside of him. Leaving no trace.
He sat up. He looked around. Rubbed his eyes. “What the? What just happened? Was that a dream? Was it real?”
He swung his legs off the bed. He looked around. He looked outside. All was dark. Not a soul stirred.
“What was that?” he stammered. He was trying to make sense of something magnificent, something he had never experience before.
“I need to walk. Need to process this.”
He put on his clothes and his sandals and quietly snuck out the front door and walked quickly, back to the grove. There he processed, in his spirit, what he just saw. He mulled it over.
It was a dream. Or it seemed like a dream. It seemed like it was a kind of movie, but it happened all at once, like a single text message but charged with video content that was all communicated in a single surge.
There was a figure. Tall. Wearing a white robe. Light seemed to come out of this figure, as though his skin were glowing embers. A quiet light. A radiance.
Words were spoken that somehow seemed similar to the light. They happened. When they happened, meaning was transmitted, in a kind of pulse of light. The meaning was clear. Joseph heard it. Or rather he knew it. The message of the man passed into his mind:
“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.”
It must have been an angel, Joseph thought. It all makes sense. This child comes from the Holy Spirit. Well, that makes no sense. But it makes sense that Mary would not have been unfaithful.
Then he stopped, cold, in his tracks. Another word dropped into his heart, as though a pulse of light from heaven. But this was a word of Scripture he had often read. A prophecy of Isaiah:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
Oh my . . . he murmured, beneath his breath. O my . . . O my . . .
He struggled to take it in. He could see that it all flowed together: what the man, who must have been an angel, said; what the prophet Isaiah had foretold; what had happened in Mary and Mary’s consecration to God that only Joseph knew about . . . that it all held together. It all pointed together to something magnificent.
Joseph hurried home. He had to get the house ready. He would be bringing his bride home in the morning.
The Scripture Passage From Which This Story Comes
“Now 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 be with child 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.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.”
Mt. 1: 18-25
Father, you father Joseph through an experience of the night. You form him through an early experience of the Cross, so that he might become a father to Jesus. Help me to trust in your mysterious ways with all those who draw close to you. Help me to trust – even when I find myself the night and in an experience of the Cross. Amen.