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“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’ ” (Mt 1:23).
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Mt 1:18-24) tells the story of how Joseph of Nazareth responded to the news that Mary, his bride to be, was “with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). Imagine his surprise, his anger, but above all his deep concern for the woman he loved, when he first discovered that Mary was pregnant. Joseph’s decision to “divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:19) was made unselfishly in order to protect her from the gossip and shame that would inevitably come from her unacceptable status as an unwed mother.
As we know, God’s messenger intervened before Joseph could carry out his decision. “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ … When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt 1:20-21, 24).
There is no way that Joseph could have understood what the angel was saying to him. At best, the appearance of an angel in a dream made him aware that something extraordinary was taking place here, and that this incredible miracle was God’s work. For “a righteous man”(Mt 1:19), a man of deep faith and no little courage, that was enough. He didn’t protest or ask questions. He simply did as the angel commanded him, and took Mary and her unborn child into his home.
I confess that I am especially devoted to my namesake, Joseph of Nazareth, for many reasons. He is honest, humble, hardworking, faithful and “righteous” without ever being arrogant or self-centered. St. Joseph is someone that Mary and Jesus relied on in good times and bad, and he is there for us in the same way now. Turn to him in prayer, and you can be sure that he will hear you, comfort you and sustain you with his strength.
St. Joseph bears witness to the fact that God is with us, even when we don’t understand how or why. The Gospels tell us that every time Joseph was tested, he responded positively. He did what God asked him to do. He didn’t resist or complain. He accepted what he could not understand, and he trusted that God was present and active in his world no matter how confusing or dangerous things appeared to be.
Imagine how hard it must have been to “take Mary into his home” when the details of her pregnancy were a complete mystery to him. The angel’s assurance that the child was conceived in her “through the Holy Spirit” can’t have been very satisfying. But the questions he must have had—and the conflicting emotions he surely felt—never interfered with his love for Mary and her child, or with his fidelity to God’s will.
At Christmas time, we celebrate Mary’s “yes” to the incarnation of God’s Word in her womb. Without Mary’s free acceptance of God’s action in her life, Christ would not have come into our world 2,000 years ago.
But Joseph’s “yes” is also important to the Christmas mystery. He did not have to accept the strange situation he found himself in. Except for his profound respect for God’s will, and his devotion to the woman he loved, Joseph might easily have gone through with their quiet divorce and saved himself a lot of future trouble and uncertainty.
I admire Joseph’s strength and his courage. I pray that I can demonstrate something of the same fidelity to God’s will in my ministry as a priest, a bishop and (now) a cardinal. In all honesty, the news of my appointment to the College of Cardinals—something I never expected—and then to the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., caused me to experience some of the same confusion that St. Joseph must have felt (obviously on a much different scale). But when I looked to him for strength and support, he showed me that there is only one way to respond to unexpected interventions by God’s messengers—in this case, Pope Francis. And that is to do as I am commanded without hesitation.
St. Joseph’s acceptance of God’s will in his life was a participation in God’s plan “to save his people from their sins.” Through the intercession of this good man, Joseph of Nazareth, may we all say “yes” to God’s will—now and always! †