Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…
Each time I’ve read this text this year, my imagination falls on the description of Joseph’s response after he receives the gut-wrenching news that Mary’s expecting a baby. Joseph knew good and well he had nothing to do with this unseemly development, and Mary’s story about Spirit and angels and the like must have struck him as a particularly elaborate attempt to redefine the obvious.
Yet – and this is what gets me – Matthew says that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. In a world that sputters on the fumes of controversy and defense of the tribe, I wonder what it would be like (and I’m imagining precisely those places where we believe our identity most threatened – or those places of public discourse where we are certain so much is at stake) to be bullheaded in our unwillingness to expose another to disgrace.
We often equate courage with those who thump their chests and “tell it like it is,” but I believe that often the bravest thing is to relinquish the compulsion to be right, to possess a trigger finger for mercy, to live gently. It’s a good thing to honor others’ dignity with such vigilance that there are lines we simply will not cross. Winning the issue or defending our “rights” provides a sorry excuse for crushing another human.
Though Joseph exhibited heroic valor, this entire story leads to the angel’s charge for Joseph to not be afraid. This is the word angels speak whenever they hit the scene. Apparently it’s the word we all need to hear. The angel prodded Joseph to push his courage further, to not merely refuse to disgrace Mary but to rouse his truest instincts and embrace Mary along with all the uncertainty sure to accompany.
It requires courage to love. It takes courage to live with our guard down and our arms open. But this is what happens when God appears. This is what happens when Emmanuel arrives, God with us.