Go, tell my servant David, “When your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. It is he who shall build a house for my name.”
2 Samuel 7: 4; 12-13
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, before they lived together, she was found to be with child—from the Holy Spirit. 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 . . . .”
Matthew 1: 18-20
In Luke’s gospel, the central figure in the narrative of Jesus’ birth is Mary. For Matthew it is Joseph. In both cases, it is a faith in God that is based in tradition but which transcends tradition and practice that allows God’s will and promise to be done in the world. Despite the little we are told about Joseph in the gospels, he becomes, in but a few lines, a great exemplar of the righteousness and faith through which, as Paul writes to the Romans, the promise of God is fulfilled.
In the gospel, Joseph is described as being “just.” The Greek term connotes Joseph’s fidelity to the Law. Joseph, as a “just” man, knows who he is and how to interpret life through the precepts of the Law. It is quite clear what a man is to do in the situation in which Joseph finds himself. The law makes clear to him that he has two painful and difficult options. He is about to make his decision to “divorce her quietly” based both on the Law’s precepts and on his desire to spare Mary the shame of public reproach.
But then, as with his namesake from the Book of Genesis, Joseph has a dream in which an angel, a messenger from God, calls him to act beyond the norms of the Law, to recognize a way of God that seems inscrutable and impossible.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud writes of the importance of not “under-interpreting” in an analysis, that is not holding to an interpretation of the other’s experience that is so authoritative that it is closed off to other meanings. Instead one is better inclined to “over-interpretation,” remaining aware that there is always a surplus of meaning in every experience and event. What makes Joseph and Mary such extraordinary vehicles of God’s grace and action in the world is their ability to “over-interpret.” They are just and faithful observers of the Law of God, yet, they are somehow also open to being shown and taught the Ways of God that their understanding and even their devotion to the tradition cannot immediately perceive and comprehend. This is the faith of Abraham to which God summons David in the reading from 2 Samuel and on which God “will make his kingdom firm.”
Joseph is a just man who is also, in the deepest sense, a man of faith. Faith is belief in the ground of God’s love and fidelity at the moment when we seem to have lost our ground, when our stock of knowledge and all of life’s conventional wisdom are not enough. Would it have been possible for Joseph not to hear God’s Messenger? If we judge by our own experience, we would have to say “yes.” It is very difficult in life not to “under-interpret.” It is faith, in its deepest sense, that trusts the capacity of those moments in life which challenge every sense we have of rightness and fairness to teach and form us in new and unknown ways. Even as we act based on our best lights and understandings, faith calls us to live in the humility of our limited interpretations and to stand ready to respond to the unexpected and mysterious as they arise.
The mystic experiences step after step the lack of meaning to the different levels of reality which (s)he enters, works through, and leaves. As long as (s)he walks ahead on this road the anxieties of guilt and condemnation are also conquered. They are not absent. Guilt can be acquired on every level, partly through a failure to fulfill its intrinsic demands, partly through a failure to proceed beyond the level. But as long as the certainty of final fulfillment is given, the anxiety of guilt does not become anxiety of condemnation. . . .
The mystical courage to be lasts as long as the mystical situation. Its limit is the state of emptiness of being and meaning, with its horror and despair, which the mystics have described. In these moments the courage to be is reduced to the acceptance of even this state as a way to prepare through the darkness for light, through emptiness for abundance. As long as the absence of the power of being is felt as despair, it is the power of being which makes itself felt through despair. To experience this and to endure it is the courage to be of the mystic in the state of emptiness. Although mysticism in its extreme positive and extreme negative aspects is a comparatively rare event, the basic attitude, the striving for union with ultimate reality, and the corresponding courage to take the nonbeing which is implied in finitude upon oneself are a way of life which is accepted by and has shaped large sections of humankind.
Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 159
In his dreaming, Joseph over rather than underinterpets (cf. Adam Phillips) the meanings of Mary’s pregnancy.