IN his narrative of the birth of Jesus, Saint Matthew is giving us a theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus. The birth narrative is like the overture that sounds the themes that would be developed in the symphony proper. Joseph, the husband of Mary, plays the prominent role of exemplary receptor to the divine plans (Matthew 1:18-24).
Mary is officially betrothed to Joseph; they have formally married each other. But they do not live together yet and must still go through the period of waiting and preparation for the conjugal life. It is at this stage that Mary is found to be pregnant. A big scandal because Joseph and Mary have not yet had sexual relations. Had she illicit sexual relations with someone else? Joseph the injured husband does not want to claim his right to a public inquiry to determine how Mary got pregnant. That can only worsen Mary’s situation. Joseph being a righteous man and intent on observing the law of zero tolerance against adultery is decided to break their marriage as quietly as possible while trying to save as much of Mary’s honor as possible.
Joseph is acting on the distinction between the person and the person’s perceived sin, trying to respect the person while not undercutting the purpose of the law in a world of law. This struggle is, in fact, an ongoing tension in the life and ministry of Jesus. He will be teaching that the center of the law is love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39), which must flow through and interpret every particular law. The law must be fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18), but keeping in mind that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). You have to go beyond the law to fulfill the law, a paradox connected with the coming of Jesus from the beginning.
Doer of God’s will
Joseph does not get around to carry out his plan of quietly divorcing his wife Mary. He is introduced to God’s plan, experiencing in a dream a direct divine communication. Joseph moves beyond ordinary waking consciousness into deeper regions of awareness open to him, a direct, personal experience of divine intentions. He is told that the child his wife has conceived is from the Holy Spirit, and his part in God’s own plan is to shelter Mary and be a father to the child exercising the legal authority to name him “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” The evangelist also supplies us the deeper reason why Jesus will save His people from their sins: He is “Emmanuel, God with us.” Divine presence means forgiveness of sins; the people themselves will name him Emmanuel because through him they will experience liberation from the bondage of sin.
The creative tension continues in Joseph’s personal contact with the divine. His Jewish tradition labels as scandal what has happened to Mary and to their marriage, but Joseph is told it is the Holy Spirit at work. Tradition calls for divorce, Joseph’s dream experience orders him to take home his wife. His righteous intention regarding Mary is his attempt to bring love into the world of law, forgiveness to what looked like sin. And now his naming the child Jesus gives to the world the very source of forgiveness of sins, not only to the house of David but to all people grounded in God. This “God with us” at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel is matched at the end with the mountaintop words of Jesus: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Alálaong bagá, at the heart of our Christian way of life is to “hear and obey”—as Joseph wakes from sleep and carries out the divine instructions to take Mary as his wife and look after the child. To discern God’s voice amid the cacophony of human noise is to be awake. To perceive the divine dimension of what is transpiring around is to enter into a world permeated with the divine, not frozen in scandal but creative in the power of the Spirit. As “hearer and doer” of the Word of God, one is united to the life-giving truth.
The sacred writer tells the readers that Mary’s child is the work of the Holy Spirit.
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