Joseph her husband, being just but not willing to shame her, planned to divorce her quietly. As he was considering this, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take home Mary your wife. For what is begotten in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus. For he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1: 19- 21
Matthew makes Joseph the central character in his infancy narrative. It is as his son that Jesus lays claim to being “of the House and Family of David.” At least as this account presents things, however, this comes very close to never happening. Joseph discovers that his betrothed is carrying a child that is not his, and his traditions afford a clear direction for how to proceed in such a situation. Although brief, however, the description of Joseph that is communicated to us is of one who is far more than a “conventional” human being.
Joseph finds himself at a moment of impasse. He is described as both “just” and “unwilling to shame” Mary. The law, as laid out in Deuteronomy 23, is quite clear about what “justice” requires in the situation of an engaged woman found not to be a virgin. “She is to be returned to her father’s house and stoned to death by the men of the city on account of the disgrace brought upon her Father’s house” (Daniel Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, p.34). But Joseph is unwilling to subject Mary to such a law and instead chooses to divorce Mary quietly.
It is as he continues to consider what to do in such an impasse that Joseph receives God’s direction in a dream. As Luke in the Annunciation to Mary, Matthew describes a moment where God’s desire for humankind is dependent on the response of a single human person, a person who has come to the limits of his own wisdom and understanding. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The Joseph we meet in Matthew’s gospel is holding in mind what appear to be the two opposed ideas of justice and compassion, as he waits upon a Divine direction that exceeds his own incapacities to see the way forward.
All of us at one time or another have had the experience of the limits of our insight and understanding. There are times when words and so thoughts fail us. As the gospel illustrates, these are very significant moments in life and in our process of abandonment to God’s will. Are we willing to humbly sit and wait in the impasse we are experiencing? Are we able to trust a God who is really active and alive in us and the world to the degree that the limits of our understanding are but the thresholds of God’s invitation to us. Joseph “considers” and ponders until he receives in a dream the light of God’s direction, of God’s plan that is being worked out in Mary and himself. A dream state is a place beyond our focal consciousness. It is where our willed thought and action becomes discipled to our transcendent potency to receive inspiration from the Mysterious Other. May we practice more and more stilling our busy minds and body that we may learn to receive from the moments of impasse and darkness God’s guidance and direction.
Facing the emptiness
Within and without
As a way
Romeo J. Bonsaint