The right thing to do, the expected response to learning that your betrothed has disgraced your family and hers, is to denounce her publicly so that she might be put to death by stoning.
But Joseph doesn’t do that. Even before he’s heard from the angel, he doesn’t do that. Already, he has resolved to divorce her quietly. How often does it happen that someone with every right to exercise revenge chooses the path of forgiveness, the path of life? He is responding to the call of something deeply countercultural; he’s willing to put his own reputation and his own masculinity on the line. He is demonstrating the courage and wisdom that comes from true love.
And that changes everything. Joseph is discovering the transformative power of relationship: what matters most to him, more than his reputation, more than claiming his rights, is what happens to Mary. Nothing is more important to him than that his betrothed be protected and safe. It has already become his job to want the best for those he loves.
It’s not the only time that he will have to make difficult and radical decisions for those he loves, but this is really Joseph’s moment in the spotlight. How he responds will shape his family and their future. Before much longer, he will have to decide to flee Bethlehem and go into hiding in Egypt to protect his wife and son.
His son. Even before the angel tells him the truth, Joseph finds that this baby not yet born has laid a claim on his heart. The baby is his, even when he thinks that Mary has been unfaithful. The actual paternity matters less to Joseph than does the reality that love means putting others first. Even before he hears from the messenger of God, Joseph responds to the call of Advent, to the quiet, insistent longing for a world that follows different rules, for a world founded not on retribution but on righteousness, not on laws but on love.
What difference does it make that Joseph chooses to defy the traditions and expectations of the only world he has known in favor of mercy, in favor of protecting the one he loves, in favor of a relationship that puts others first? Imagine if he had not. Imagine if he had chosen the easy way out, denounced Mary publicly. She would have been put to death by stoning. We would have been denied a Savior.
In making the courageous choice, in siding with love, Joseph is showing you and me an alternative. Joseph choosing to not act. How often does true righteousness consist of choosing not to act? How often can you and I make the world a little bit of a better place when we show restraint? Each time we choose not to gossip, we choose not to criticize, we choose not to lash out, you and I are showing the restraint of Joseph, who is motivated by selfless and unconditional love.
How often do you and I have a choice like Joseph’s – a choice between lashing out, and getting momentary satisfaction in causing someone else pain – and holding back, by saying or doing nothing, and showing mercy and grace and perhaps even love in our silence? In not doing something, Joseph is allowing something much greater to flower. He lets go of his own agenda, his right to revenge, and instead he embraces God’s agenda, bringing light and life and salvation into the world.
And Mary receives a great gift from her betrothed. Shrouded in uncertainty and fear, wondering why in the world she said yes to an angel, she learns that Joseph will put her first. Even before they are married, he is demonstrating that she can trust him, because he loves her. She hasn’t even had a chance to demonstrate her love for him, and yet she is receiving a gift she’s never earned, forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy.
Like Mary, you and I don’t deserve anything. It’s all a gift. Joseph deserves to have Mary put to death by stoning and chooses not to. The miracle of salvation and forgiveness will be turned loose upon the world because of Joseph’s choice.
In the grand scheme of things, in the sweeping narrative of the Christmas story, Joseph often gets overlooked. He doesn’t actually have any lines; no dialogue is ascribed to him. He appears in only a few scenes and disappears entirely after the scene in the Temple when Jesus is twelve. But for such a minor character, he has a major impact. And it’s not because of any grand gestures on his part. Rather, it’s because of the stillness and steadiness within him that allows him to listen to his heart, that allows him to be led by love.
“Not all of us can do great things,” said St. Mother Teresa, “but we can do small things with great love.” In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in today’s reading, he says, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. What if all that is required of us to be called to be saints is that we are willing to do small things with great love?
In his moment on the stage, Joseph makes a decision. A choice. He chooses righteousness over retaliation, love over law, mercy over malice. He chooses to do a small thing with great love. And that small gesture, the restraint, the decision not to act, changes history. In this season of love, of expectancy, of hope, we are surrounded by images and words that insist that only the grand gesture will do, that we must do more, have more, buy more. Perhaps the message of Joseph is a way to respond in this season of excess with restraint, with quietness, and with love. If you and I are called to be saints, all we need do is look to Joseph and instead choose to do small things with great love.