A lot gets made of Joseph’s “righteous” decision to divorce Mary quietly in this reading. He assumed she’d gotten pregnant by another man, but he didn’t want her to be stoned, which was the legal penalty for adultery. (I have to wonder if Jesus thought about his mom when he stepped in to protect another woman from being stoned for adultery later.)
What I want to focus on today, though, is Mary and her situation. I feel like I can relate to it, just a little bit, because by the time you’re hearing this, I’ll be 37 weeks pregnant at the end of what’s been a bit of a complicated pregnancy. Obviously, Mary’s situation is a bit more complicated than mine to say the least, but I think the first-time mom fear is a real thing. You know everything is going to change; your body is going through things you really can’t understand and don’t know how you’ll recover from; and you’re constantly reassuring yourself that you’re doing this for love, but that feels very abstract, and almost imaginary, compared to the physical, material anxieties that are right in front of you.
Those anxieties, and the intangibility of reassurance, were even more elevated for Mary. Think about it: If Joseph isn’t “righteous,” she gets stoned to death. The “righteous” option is that he quietly divorces her and she’s left poorer than she already was, trying to care for this child alone, and isolated from her community for having a child without being married. And that’s not to mention the fact that pregnancy and childbirth are incredibly risky; she could very well die, and if her child survived, he wouldn’t have another parent to take care of him! All that Mary has to lean on here is the angel’s reassurance, “Be not afraid”...Mary is a woman of much greater faith than I am, because if an angel said that to me and then departed from me with the good option being left alone to raise a child, I would have some choice words for that angel. I think the genuine fear Mary must have felt gets lost in a lot of the “O clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary”, “Silent Night” stuff. All is not calm! All is not bright!
I want to jump back to the first reading now, because here we have someone who also needs to take a leap of faith, in completely different material circumstances than Mary. Ahaz is a young, foolish king of Judah who worships false gods, and Isaiah—one of the greatest prophets—is trying to convince him to believe in the true God. God speaks to King Ahaz through Isaiah and tells him, very directly, to ask for a sign. But Ahaz knows that if he does, and if Isiah’s God pulls through, he’ll have to believe, and change his ways. And he doesn’t want to do that. I get that. I know I’m a person who really needs to grow in humility, but I always shy away from praying for it, because I know the way God helps us grow in humility is by humiliating us! And I don’t want that.
So Ahaz says no, making the very pious-sounding excuse that he doesn’t want to test the Lord. But Isaiah and God see exactly what Ahaz is doing, and Isaiah responds by delivering one of the most important prophecies in scripture: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”
And, as if to really hammer home that Mary and Ahaz are foils to one another, Mary holds onto that promise, literally risking her life holding onto faith that it is true and is about her, while Ahaz, living his very comfortable life, ignores it. He never comes around.
So where does all this leave our “righteous” friend Joseph? How do we read his decision?
Thankfully, the reading doesn’t end with him making the “righteous” decision to leave Mary. Instead, he has this famous dream, in which God tells him not to be afraid of marrying Mary, because her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and he is the Emmanuel that God promised through Isaiah.
I have to wonder here whether Mary had tried to tell Joseph this before, or whether she stayed quiet and just hoped God would take care of it. If it’s the former, then the parallels with the Passion and Resurrection narratives are astonishing: Mary, and the case of Easter, the other women too, are holding on to faith through some truly horrific events, not running away, and when they try to tell the men the good news, that God is becoming incarnate, or that God incarnate has returned from the dead, the men don’t believe them. They have to be told by God themselves.If Mary didn’t say anything, then I think that that silence and waiting on God to convince Joseph was probably very carefully discerned on her part. Her being quiet out of fear doesn’t jibe with the Mary we see throughout this pregnancy, who is in a terrifying situation but holding on with all her strength to faith, and to God’s promise. She already knows Joseph thinks she was pregnant by another man, and that she may have to face consequences for that, even though she doesn’t deserve them.
So what’s our takeaway here? I think it’s this: No matter whether she had tried to convince Joseph or not, Mary is relying 100 percent on faith here. She has no reassurance from any person that she won’t be killed, or that she’ll survive childbirth, or that her child will be provided for—in fact, the opposites seem very likely. The Ahaz story underlines how hard it is to have faith even for someone who isn’t remotely under those pressures. But Mary, like every new parent in the face of very imminent physical and material fears, is still holding on to faith in the intangible thing that has been promised to her: That she will have a child, who will be a sign to her and to the world that God is with us.
Colleen Dulle is a multimedia journalist covering Catholic and Vatican news.
In her current position as Associate Editor at America Media, Colleen writes and edits Vatican news and analysis pieces, along with hosting and producing the weekly news podcast Inside the Vatican. She creates Vatican explainer videos for America Media’s YouTube channel and contributes to Sacred Heart University’s “Go, Rebuild My House” blog.
Colleen has reported national and international news for Catholic News Service, The Associated Press, The Times-Picayune and the St. Louis Review in both print and video. Her wire service articles have appeared in publications around the world.
Colleen’s work has earned regional and national accolades from the Catholic Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Louisiana/Mississippi Associated Press Media Editors. She was the 2019 and 2021 Catholic Media Association Multimedia Journalist of the Year.
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