Gabriel’s message to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus is known as the Annunciation. Gabriel has announcement for Joseph as well. We don’t often think of Joseph in the birth narrative. We like to gloss over his story, because it is so short and we hear so little about Joseph in the Gospels. Gabriel’s visit to Joseph is the third visit in the Gospels. The angel visits Joseph 3 times; today’s reading is the first of those 3 visits.
In Nazareth, there is a chapel where Joseph’s workshop was. In the basement of the chapel, there is a stained glass window depicting Gabriel’s visit to Joseph. When looking at it, I was struck by Joseph’s face. He was obviously a man troubled deeply, distraught. When you look at his face, you see a man struggling to do what is right. The Bible tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. Joseph is struggling with his situation and what is the right thing to do.
Joseph is faced with 3 options: expose Mary, quietly dismiss her, or marry her. Mary was betrothed to Joseph which is much different than a 21st century engagement. According to Jewish custom, a young couple became engaged by their parents’ arrangement. The girl was considered married at the betrothal. If the man died during their betrothal, she would be called a widow. The marriage could only be terminated by death or divorce.
During the betrothal that usually lasted about a year, the young woman remained in her father’s home. At the end of the engagement, there would be a feast and the bride would go to live with her husband. During the betrothal, there was to be no sexual relations. So, if Mary turned up pregnant, there was only one explanation; she had been unfaithful.
The Bible says Joseph is a righteous man to tell us that he and Mary weren’t sneaking around having pre-marital relations. Being a righteous man, he must consider his options according to the Law. This would subject Mary to stoning (Deuteronomy 22: 23 – 24). Joseph is faced with 3 options in this situation: expose Mary and have her stoned, quietly dismiss her and leave her to a life of poverty with an illegitimate child, or marry her.
Joseph struggles with what to do to follow the Law and honor the customs of the Jewish faith. Joseph is described as righteous, but he is not self-righteous. If he were self-righteous demanding harsh justice, he would expose Mary and have her stoned. He, instead, decides to quietly dismiss and divorce her. Still, she will be seen as a public disgrace and ridiculed.
Joseph must have laid awake, tossing and turning, going over again and again his options, wondering if he had decided the right thing to do, worried about Mary, worried about himself. Finally, he fell asleep, just as he had resigned to divorce Mary. But, just as he had resigned to divorce Mary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The Bible doesn’t say it is Gabriel, but we can be sure that it is. The angel’s message follows Gabriel’s pattern of announcements. Gabriel addresses Joseph by name, tells him, “Do not be afraid,” tells him of a coming son, gives the child a name, and tells Joseph the role of the child in God’s plan of salvation.
Gabriel says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.” Gabriel’s announcement is an invitation from God, just as Mary had been invited to participate in God’s plan. Joseph was invited to take Mary as his wife.
Joseph doesn’t have a response for Gabriel. He doesn’t say, let it be so. He doesn’t ask for a sign. We don’t know what Joseph told Gabriel, but we know how Joseph responded to God’s invitation. Joseph’s actions said yes to God’s invitation. Joseph takes Mary as his wife and names her baby Jesus.
If Joseph was righteous and sought to do what was honorable by divorcing Mary that might have been the easy way. But, he chose the hard way, because Gabriel invited him to participate in God’s plan. This invitation required exceptional faith from Joseph in what the angel Gabriel said was true. Joseph’s faith would have to accept that Mary’s pregnancy was a gift from God and so choose to be a part of her life. Mary could believe what the angel said, because she became pregnant. Joseph could choose to take the easy way out and divorce Mary or he could stand by her side and choose to live the difficult life of faith. Joseph chose the life of faith.
There is a poem by W.H. Auden called For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio with a section called The Temptation of St. Joseph. It reads:
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the usual Exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
The miracle of the virgin birth can be a difficult tenet of faith. The season of Advent gives us the opportunity to prepare our hearts for the news that Jesus was born of a virgin. We are invited to claim the same truth Mary and Joseph had to about faith. Mary, Joseph, and we are asked to believe that a woman conceived a child by the Spirit.
I think we are remiss if we don’t ponder the question, “Is a virgin birth really possible?” We can ask ourselves the question, because people who are not of the faith are asking the question, “How can you believe that Jesus was born to a virgin?” Mary believed it. Joseph believed it.
Advent is the season when we can ask ourselves the question, “Do I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?” The answer is, “Yes, I believe.” If it were not so, there would be nothing remarkable about the baby born in Bethlehem. He would not be the Son of God. He would not be the Savior of the world. He would not be the Divine child. We wouldn’t have anything to celebrate on Christmas. But, we have something remarkable to celebrate. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. The Divine Christ child is the sign that God is with us.
Our faith tells us that the promises of God, His Son, the gift of grace, unmerited love, and eternal life are true. Our faith endures because we know all of this is true. It may seem foolish to the unbelievers of the world. They may think it is ridiculous that we believe a child was born of a virgin, but our faith endures. Not without doubt. Not without question. Not without trouble or trial. Our faith endures because we believe that nothing is impossible with God.
Advent is about waiting on the Christ child. We are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to Earth when the hope and joy of our faith will be renewed when the love and peace of Christ will reign eternally over all the Earth. We are waiting for the spirit of generosity and good will to be eternal, not just a season. We are waiting faithfully believing in the impossible.