This time of year, there are many special television programs, movies, and stories about Christmas — and particularly, about how some obstacle had to be overcome or some change of heart effected so that Christmas might truly be understood and celebrated.
We have the song about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who makes it possible for Santa Claus to leave the North Pole in spite of terrible weather. Dr. Seuss’ story on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” describes how a villain became the hero by undergoing a surprising conversion and getting into the Christmas spirit. The movie “Miracle on 34th Street” shows how a young girl’s belief in Kris Kringle makes Christmas a magical time for her and her family. The 1946 movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” stars Jimmy Stewart as a man given a very special gift on Christmas Eve: a chance to see what the world would be like if he had never existed, and to discover instead how so many people benefited from his efforts over a lifetime to do good. Perhaps the most famous contemporary Christmas story is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in which Ebeneezer Scrooge undergoes a complete change of heart after being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; his newfound generosity makes possible a wonderful holiday for poor Bob Crachit and his family.
These are all delightful stories in which fictional characters help played a central and essential part in allowing Christmas to be experienced and celebrated properly. The Gospel of Matthew (1:18-24) describes an even more wonderful story involving an actual person: St. Joseph. He is perhaps the “forgotten person” in the story of Christmas, but, as the Gospel shows, he played a vital role — and in doing this, he provides a model for us. Joseph’s goodness helped make the first Christmas possible; our goodness must make it come alive again.
Joseph was perhaps in his late 20s, and Mary about age 15, when they were engaged. Mary had already taken a vow of perpetual virginity, and Joseph was quite willing to respect it, possibly having taken a similar vow himself. In Jewish law, engagement was just as binding as the marriage ceremony, and so when it became apparent that Mary was pregnant, it naturally appeared to Joseph that Mary had been unfaithful to him.
As a devout Jew, Joseph couldn’t make a mockery of the Law by going ahead with the wedding and acting as if nothing had happened. The Law of Moses said that an engaged woman guilty of infidelity should be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house. This rule was probably no longer generally enforced by the time of the first century, but public rejection and humiliation would nevertheless bring lasting shame upon the sinner and her family.
Joseph still loved Mary, but his heart was broken, and he obviously couldn’t marry her now. He faced a real dilemma: He could publicly denounce Mary as an adulteress and gain everyone’s sympathy. However, Joseph wanted to follow the Law in a way that would be as gentle as possible upon Mary. He decided to divorce her quietly — even though doing so might make him appear a weak man and thus subject himself to public ridicule.
Only after he reached this decision did the angel of the Lord appear to him in a dream and reveal the truth about Mary’s pregnancy. God could have spared Joseph all this mental anguish, but He first wanted the saint to demonstrate his faith and trust and love. The Lord gave Joseph the chance to prove himself and improve himself, and he did. Joseph believed the surprising message he was given; at the angel’s command, he went ahead and took Mary as his wife, thus setting the stage for Jesus’ birth.
St. Joseph’s conduct offers several lessons for us. First, it’s important to practice faith in a loving manner, instead of using religion as an opportunity to judge or condemn others. Even though he was deeply hurt, Joseph chose to observe the Law in a way that showed concern for Mary. Our religion, too, must benefit others; by being kind, forgiving, helpful, compassionate, and respectful, we must show that Catholicism is a religion not primarily of rules, but of love.
Secondly, we have to do the morally right thing without worrying about what others might think or say. Joseph was willing to risk enduring ridicule, rather than deflecting attention away from himself by publicly accusing Mary. There may be times when we’re in the minority, when our values are attacked, or when it’s not easy to live out our faith. We have to do so anyhow, by standing up for what we believe — thereby remaining true to Christ.
Thirdly, we have to place our trust in God and do our best to follow His will, even when we don’t understand. As soon as Joseph had his dream, all doubts disappeared. The situation still didn’t make a lot of sense; he must have had several questions, but he didn’t worry — he believed God would make everything work out. We can’t know the future; there is a risk involved in placing our lives in God’s hands — but that’s what faith is all about. If we truly love God — and if we believe He loves us — we will trust in Him.
St. Joseph created the stage or setting for Christmas — not with his carpenter’s tools, but with loving faith, a determination to do what was right, and humble trust. This is how he played his role in the true and wonderful story of Christmas, and in this, he is an example for us. When we try to do the right thing, we’re helping establish God’s Kingdom in the world and in the hearts of others. Joseph’s goodness helped make the first Christmas possible, and our efforts to imitate him can give Christmas new meaning today.
Fr. Joseph Esper is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Ira Township. This column was first published at www.CatholicJournal.US.