Fear Not All You Josephs
It’s interesting that the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Matthew focuses more on Joseph than on Mary. The person who wrote this particular Gospel which was directed to Christians of Jewish descent wanted to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the prophets and comes through the line of David.
I’m guessing that as would any Jew Joseph was rather proud of the fact that he was a direct descendent of David. There are those who make the argument that Joseph wasn’t the simple carpenter presented to us by our bible stories. Ancestry records which have more recently come to light suggest that Joseph’s family of origin was wrapped up in great intrigue. Joseph the Carpenter was the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem who was the fifth wife of Herod. She was the posthumously born daughter of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra who the records indicate was ‘given to a foreign Prince’. According to these records Joseph was about twenty two years of age when we was told by the temple authorities that a young Davidian princess, Mary, was eligible for betrothal and marriage. But the upshot of all this ancestral posturing is that as a prince of the royal line of David, living in the time of Herod the Great was inherently dangerous. From this perspective Joseph knew fear from being part of a family many members of which were killed off because they were precieved as being challenges to the throne.
Thus the angel, acknowledging Joseph’s true lineage says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife into your home.”
Do not be afraid. These words occur over and over in scripture seemingly whenever a human has an encounter with the Divine. The angel Gabriel first appeared in Daniel 10 and told Daniel not to be afraid. Gabriel is found in the Gospel of Luke telling the priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, not to be afraid. Those were also the Angel’s words to Mary. The shepherds were told by angels not to be afraid. Jesus told Simon Peter and his fishing mates not to be afraid after they almost broke their fishing nets when they listened to Jesus’ instructions. The three disciples were told not to be afraid when they heard the voice of God during the Transfiguration. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were told not to be afraid when they came upon the empty tomb. So, in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is told “Do not be afraid.”
Joseph was told in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. What was he afraid of? We don’t know for sure, but it certainly had to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Those legends about Joseph’s ancestry where sibling rivals to positions of power and authority were ended with brutal murder might give him pause about taking a bride and who was expecting a child.
Then maybe Joseph was fearful of what other’s would say when a full term baby was born four or five months after the couple began their marriage. Perhaps Joseph was worried over what kind of woman this Mary was really like. After all, she was a young girl and, as far as Joseph initially knew, she was pregnant by someone else. Did he really want to risk the heartbreak she would inevitably bring upon him?
Or perhaps, Joseph’s fear was provoked by the religious authorities. What if he got caught protecting Mary and was accused of joining her in violating the Law of Moses? Wouldn’t he also be punished for protecting an abomination to God’s law and thus co-operating with the sin?
And maybe there was another reason why Joseph was afraid. Maybe he was afraid that he could not love this child as every child has a right to be loved. How could he love the child as a father. We hear this reading about Joseph’s concerns over and over, but we forget that on the human level, Joseph must have thought, “What a mess this is. And what a greater mess it will be if I complete this marriage and take Mary as my wife.”
But the angel said to Joseph in the dream, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph heard, “Trust God, for the child is special. And so is his mother. Do not be afraid. Trust God.” And Joseph put his complete trust in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, how to deal with the Law of Moses, how to deal with Joseph’s concerns for the child. God would give him the ability to love the child as a father.
It was a matter of tradition that the father is responsible for giving the child a name. The meaning behind that practice was caught up in how Jews of the day thought about eternal life. And Joseph named the child Jesus. With the name, Joseph gives his own spirit and all he is to the child. At once, the child, Jesus, is son of God and son of Mary, but also, through the naming of the child by Joseph, he is the son of Joseph and, to top it all off, he is the son of David.
Fear is not the characteristic of a follower of Christ. At the heart of Christianity is trust. Confidence that God is at work. Like Mary and Joseph we live in a world that is a fearful place. Our whole lives must consist in efforts to love more and more as Jesus loved. To do this we need a gift from God. That gift is trust. We need to trust God to work things out. We have to trust the Lord to remove the fear that prevents us from taking risks and living in obedience. We have to trust that the will bring healing when in the act of obedience we take a step outside of ourselves and a step into love. So many of us are afraid, afraid to trust, afraid to love, afraid to risk. We need to trust God so we can make His Presence real for others.
Behold is the theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. God is working in our lives. When we are aware of this, when we behold His Presence, we can then bring his presence to others.
Christmas is not a time for fear. It is a time for love. We have to trust God to protect and develop our love. Can we love others as they deserve to be loved? Will we be hurt in return? These are the questions that Joseph asked himself as he stirred in his sleep. He heard an angel say, “Do not be afraid.” When Joseph took the step from fear to trust, the world beheld its Savior.
Perhaps, this Thursday, Christmas, or throughout this season, some of us will have to associate with someone we have had words with during the last year. This could be a neighbor, a relative or even a member of the inner circle of our family. We might worry, “If I am kind to that person, will I once more be spat upon? Will I be hurt again?” Sometimes we may have real reasons to fear. We only have to trust God and to love. For the one who calls us to love has given us the Gift of Love on Christmas Day.
We have been called to love. God will show us how to do it. Now, like Joseph, we need to name the child. We need to make Jesus an intimate part of our lives so that all that He is and all that we are may be one.
And behold! Behold the wonders that God’s love can work in our lives.