Luke tells the Advent story from the perspective of Mary the Virgin (Luke 1:26 – 38). Matthew gives greater attention to the way Joseph got the information and how he dealt with it (Matthew 2:18 – 25).
Joseph was engaged to marry Mary. Engagement in first century Israel was like a first phase of marriage, and much more binding than it is today.
When a man and woman were pledged to marry, their engagement was sealed by a public ceremony. Matthew gives us a sense of the firmness of the relationship between engagement and marriage: First he writes that Mary “was pledged to be married to Joseph (v.18). But in the next verse, though nothing has changed, he refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband (v.19).
Moreover, to break an engagement required the signing of divorce papers. And if the male should die during the engagement his pledged bride was regarded in society as a widow.
Then at the appointed time (sometimes after time allotted for the groom to build a house) the marriage itself would be celebrated with a flourish and the husband would take his bride into his home where the marriage would be consummated.
Imagine Joseph’s shock when word reached him that during their engagement Mary was found to be pregnant. Questions must have raced through his mind. There are indications that he struggled with the question: How shall I cancel my sacred pledge?
To characterize Joseph, Matthew uses only one descriptive word: He was a “righteous” man. That meant he was a serious practicing Jew; a respecter of God’s law; a religious man set on doing God’s will. Society would not likely have looked down upon him if he had divorced Mary in a very public and humiliating way.
But his righteous character had a compassionate counterbalance. Though profoundly disappointed, his love for Mary was protective. He decided he would divorce her quietly so as to cause her as little humiliation as possible.
At that point, an angel appeared to him in a dream to help him through his quandary.
The angel addressed him as Joseph, son of David — David being Israel’s most honored King from whose line the Messiah was expected to come to Israel.
The angel said, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus (meaning Jehovah the helper) because he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew adds the following words from the prophecies of Isaiah made 700 years earlier: A virgin shall conceive and the son she bears will be called Immanuel — God with us (Isaiah 7:14).
Jehovah the helper? God with us? Joseph would need those words. There were to be hard days ahead as he took Mary into his house to live out the pregnancy. Though the community would not understand, he was resolute both as a righteous man and Mary’s protector.
His name shall be Jesus! That’s what the angel announced. He will be Immanuel — God with us! That’s what the prophet Isaiah prophesied!
Advent brings home to us afresh those words. In the birth of Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the obedience of Joseph and Mary God came into the human family. In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is with his people to this day. And to this day he has the power to save us from our sins.
Jesus! God with us! Savior! Oh blessed Christmas!
Photo credit: Barta IV (via flickr.com)