There was no good reason for it, as far as Joseph could tell, no good reason for any of it. They were betrothed, engaged; the date was set, the china was registered, the tuxes were rented, the invitations mailed. And Mary was pregnant.
Not by Joseph mind you. As bad as that situation would have been, they could have coped, hidden the truth for a while, whatever. But no, as bad as that would have been, this was far worse. It was just too bad to be true. A nightmare. And Joseph kept hoping he would wake up.
When Mary told him the awful news, Joseph tried to take it like a man. He acted like a man anyway, storming about and swearing to kill whoever it was that got Mary pregnant. But she wouldn't tell him who the scoundrel was, wouldn't come clean. She was protecting the dog, of course. The Law gave Joseph every right to have this scum stoned — and Mary, too, if he wished. But she wouldn't talk, except to blather some silliness about an angel and Elizabeth and the Spirit of the Lord. But hadn't the Lord written the rules? Wasn't it the Lord's Law that gave him the right to have her stoned?
There was no good reason for it, as far as Joseph could tell, no good reason for any of it; for the pregnancy in the first place, for her protecting this guy, for her lying about it. Joseph had every right to be as angry as he was. Had every right to want him dead, and Mary, too.
But Mary. She was so young, so gentle, a flower more than a girl. Or a dove — her voice cooed, even with bad news, even with those words that had shattered his heart: "Joseph, I'm going to have a baby." He had wanted to hear those words someday, but not this way, not now. Whenever he heard them again, they would be a knife in his chest, a terrible hurt that would never go away entirely, even if Mary were dead. And what good purpose could that serve? None. It would just be more pain, and there had been enough of that …. would yet be plenty enough of pain, for the both of them.
He could just imagine the taunts of his friends:
"Joseph you have heard, what Mary says occurred.
Yet it may be so, hut is it likely, no."
"Mary may be pure, but Joseph are you sure?"
How is one to tell? Suppose, for instance … well …"
W. H. Auden, the poet, has pictured Joseph at home that night, in an empty house. Sitting there in the dark, he hears everything: the drip of the bathroom tap, the creak of the sofa spring, the wind against the window. And he hears Mary, again and again, telling him about the angel, about the message from God, about the savior coming — with a puzzling assurance, telling him everything, for no good reason, unless of course, the reason she was telling him with such assurance was because it was all true.
True. Could it really be true? She had never lied to him before. Was she lying now? Or not? Angels. The Spirit of the Lord. A holy child, a grace, not a scandalous disgrace.
But there was no proof. Who would believe it? How could he believe it? If only he had some proof, some undeniable, irrefutable evidence that what Mary said was true.
At home that night, in his empty house, in the dark, he prayed and listened hard, hoping to hear the voice of God, hoping that Gabriel would appear to him and tell him that all of it was true, or that it wasn't. Just knowing for sure one way or the other would be a real, if painful, blessing. He listened for the voice of God, for the voice of an angel, and what he heard was the drip of the bathroom tap, the creak of the sofa springs, the wind against the window, and in his mind, the voice of Mary, the sweet, gentle voice of the girl he loved.
It was then and there that for no good reason, except love, Joseph decided to do what no one else, probably, would have even thought to do, for he was a just man, the scripture says. No courts, no trials. No shameful confessions and accusations. Joseph would keep it all quiet. He wouldn't do it to himself, either. Vengeance and grudges are so terribly counter-productive. Hate decays the heart, after all.
So he would deal with it quietly. Put her away, divorce her, quietly. No scenes, no scandal, no stoning, no nothing. There was no good reason for his decision. No one would think him less than a fool for making it. And yet, it just somehow seemed the thing to do.
It was after he had decided this, the scripture says, that he had the dream.
Have you ever thought much about Joseph? Personally, I find him fascinating. We do not really know much about him, and we are the poorer for that. There are a few apocryphal stories about him, most of them fanciful and funny and completely unreliable. But still fun.
One of these stories contends that Joseph was married before his betrothal to Mary, for forty-nine years. He was the proud father of six children, four boys and a couple of girls. His wife, whose name is not told, left him a widower at the age of 89, and two years later, at the over-ripe old age of 91, he married Mary. She was all of 14 at the time.
Mary had been taken to the Temple by her mother, Anna, two years before and dedicated to the service of God. Eventually, the priests cast lots to see who would become her mate, and the lot fell to Joseph. Of course, at 91, he was pretty much beyond suspicion when the pregnancy was revealed. To some of the early believers, this age disparity seemed a nice, if indirect proof of the virginal conception of Jesus. Joseph lived another twenty years after Jesus was born, or so the story goes, dying at the age of 111.
There are other stories, and almost all of them have him being old — far older than his bride — more of a father to Mary than a husband.
I don't really believe that. I am more inclined to believe that their relationship was typical, their love genuine, their plans normal, their future hopeful — if not terribly promising, what with Joseph being a carpenter in a rocky land, not to mention the Romans. But every couple in love sees the future as a cup brimful of promise, and they must have talked about the home they planned to make, the draperies and the dishes, their honeymoon. I feel sure that they had talked about how many children they wanted, maybe about names. And all was going along so well until ….
Do you think he believed her? Of course not. Would you have believed her? If Joseph was flesh and blood, a real person, as chocked full of suspicions and jealousies as the rest of us, then of course he didn't believe her.
But maybe he wanted to. Maybe he really wanted to believe that she wouldn't betray him, wouldn't be intimate with another man. Maybe he wanted to believe her only because he needed to believe that she loved him, still loved him. The psychologists would call it denial, I guess, but there was no denying that he loved her. Even if he couldn't believe her, he loved her. That's why he couldn't even think of having her stoned. That's why he decided to put her away quietly — he loved her.
And then he had the dream. An angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and told him that everything was true, just as Mary had said, and that he could marry her anyway.
Proof, right? All he needed to hear, right? Have your dreams ever proved anything to you? I think not, not unless you already wanted to believe what your dream told you. And maybe when he awoke it occurred to Joseph to wonder if he had had the dream because he really wanted to believe her, or if he now was going to believe her because he had had the dream. Who can tell, except that upon waking, he followed the dream, and the rest is scripture.
W. H. Auden calls Joseph the "first Christian" because he had to accept the Incarnation — the coming of Jesus — without understanding it. I guess what strikes me about that is his definition of Christian — one who accepts, without necessarily understanding. There's some truth to that, because even during this season of the year, even when we celebrate the coming of Christ, we do not really understand all that it means.
We read the prophecy scriptures — the wolf lying down with the lamb, the lion and the ox feeding together, the child playing over the adders' den, and what does that mean? It's not that way anywhere I know about. Or how about the one that says, "the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light," when about all we see in this second millenia after the birth of the Child is the darkness growing darker by the day.
There's really no good reason to believe that His coming made any difference at all in the world, no proof that anything has really changed; no evidence that Christmas is such a big deal. That may even be why it's almost always the children, who act out the story — that's a way to keep it cute, enjoyable, and not terribly important. There may be no good reason this Advent, or any other, to look at the manger and say anything other than "Big deal …."
There was no good reason for Joseph, either. But there was his dream. And what did that dream change? Did his dream change the world? No. Herod was still crazy, and the Romans were still in power. Did the dream change his situation? Only to make it worse, in one way. He still faced the taunts of his friends and the looks of his family, and not only that; now he faced the long and uncomfortable trip to Bethlehem with a pregnant fiance.
What was changed, then? Only Joseph. Joseph himself was changed. And whether the dream came from his faith, or his faith came from his dream, when he woke up he dared to act as if everything were true, all of it. And because he did, and together they all escaped and returned to Nazareth, and made a home, and Jesus grew up with Joseph's help, and eventually, because of Mary and Joseph and their faith, Jesus was able to get on with His life's work. And the work Jesus did in His world was possible partly because Joseph lived as if the dream was true.
There may be no good reason for us to believe that this season means anything more than a new razor or a bottle of perfume, a food processor or a sweater or two. Look at the newspaper and it is easy enough to chalk it all up to wishful thinking …. except that it is precisely wishful thinking, and dreams, that make me want to proclaim that even where there is no good reason, there is faith. Even when there is no proof, there is hope. When pessimism resigns and skepticism abounds, grace more abundantly abounds.
Even though the world is not changed, we may be changed, we may be new, we may live in peace, must live in peace, at least with each other — because we are people who have seen the light of God's day in a darkened world.
Everything is different because of this Child, whether the world knows it yet or not. But we know it, because everything is different for us. At least it is different for us if, as Joseph did, we accept this Child, if we accept the responsibility of what God has done for us, if we accept the life and the light and the peace the Child offers to us.
Life and light and peace. This is the stuff of dreams, isn't it? Impossible dreams? Quite impossible for a world like ours. So impossible that the words themselves become cliches.
Yet for us, with a Saviour like ours, even though we do not understand all of it completely, life and light and peace may be ours. If we believe, and dream, and then live as if everything we celebrate in this season, this one birth, this one life, really does make all the difference in our lives.
If we act like Joseph, if we live as if it is all true, if we let the dream move us and guide us and change us, then we may find like Joseph, that Jesus' work in our world continues to be possible — just because we, as God's children, continue to live the dream.

Share This On: