During our service this morning, we had traditional Advent readings and a selection of carols. As I was listening to Matthew’s account of the angelic dreams Joseph experienced, a thought occurred to me.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.
The overarching narrative of the Bible is about the relationship between God and humans. God being perfect, and wanting good things for His creation, wants us to be free moral agents. However, being free, we are capable of making evil choices, and these choices have impacts, like ripples, across creation.
This structure leads to a tension between law and grace. Both are facets of goodness, and are interestingly manifested in the story of Joseph, the adoptive and legal father of Jesus of Nazareth.
Joseph was a good man in both senses of the word: he knew and reverenced the law, but he was also capable of great compassion. Remember, before the angel visited, he had no reason to believe that special circumstances applied to Mary. As far as he could tell from the available facts and the usual course of events, Mary had been unfaithful.
Unfaithfulness is morally wrong. If we do not recognise moral failings, then we deny justice and take a step further away from the ideal to which we aspire: a world in which people consistently make good choices.
However, we are also loving. If we punish moral failings, but do not show compassion, we create a world in which rights and duties matter, but the underlying reason for them is forgotten. In short, we create a world without joy.
Joseph was thus faced with a dilemma, and he opted for a compromise. To administer some element of justice, but to temper it with compassion. This was as far as he could go. He could not solve the problem of sin – Christ was born for that purpose.
The story is important as a reminder of our real-world lives. At times the events of the Bible seem very removed from our daily lives. Most of us are not kings like David or wandering prophets like Elijah or warriors like Samson. Most of us have not seen obvious miracles like the Parting of the Red Sea.
But we do all have interpersonal relationships. Marital breakdown in some form affects most of us: whether as spouses, children, relatives, friends, or workers. The Joseph story, in its own way, is a good nutshell for the Gospel message. Something to think about in the remaining days of Advent.