Troubled Joseph – Br. James Koester

Matthew 1: 18 – 25

Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person[1]. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.

Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.[2] 

Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.

But the two addressing Joseph are not shepherds. One, a young man, is actually an angel, sent by God, bearing a staff, straight and true, just as are his words. He is there to say, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’[3]

The other is an old man, the Old Deceiver, Satan himself, twisting and turning Joseph’s conscience, just like the bent and twisted staff he carries.

How many times have I sat, head in my hands, wondering what on earth to do, being twisted and turned by the demons of doubt, insecurity, fear, avoidance, the list goes on. You have seen that in me. You have seen that in yourself.

Joseph’s struggle is there for us all to see. It’s in Matthew’s gospel. It’s in the icon. But at last, he takes a leap, a leap of faith, of hope, of love, and [when he] awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.[4]

No one would have blamed Joseph had he done the sensible thing, the thing his head told him to do, but had he done so, he would have acted out of doubt, insecurity, fear, avoidance. It would have been the sensible thing to do, and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he listened to his heart, and years later, found himself standing in the Temple utterly amazed and astonished, for this child of promise, his child of promise, was exactly who the angel had said he would be.

May we, like Joseph, have the ears to listen, with hearts filled with faith, and hope, and love, so that like Joseph, we will be astonished when the promise of God comes true in our own lives.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Feast of St. Joseph

Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Feast of St. Joseph

[1] Luke 2: 41 – 52

[2] Matthew 1: 18 – 19

[3] Matthew 1: 20 – 21

[4] Matthew 1: 24 – 25

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