How different would be the Christmas story if Mary had said no, if Joseph had refused to believe the angel who came to him in a dream!
We are told in the Gospel of Luke that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”
Here we have the foreshadowing of the fulfillment of two Old Testament prophecies. About 700 years before the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the prophet Isaiah foretold that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” Isaiah also spoke of “a root from the stump of Jesse” – the father of King David – upon whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest.
It is through Joseph, a descendant of David, that this latter promise was fulfilled because by Jewish law his foster son Jesus also was from that house.
In the Bible Joseph speaks no words. The gospels of Matthew and Luke give us his lineage; Matthew adds that Joseph was a just man. Other than that, we are told only what Joseph does: When he learns his betrothed is pregnant, he decides to divorce her quietly rather than publicly shame her. Then, after reassurance from an angel, he takes Mary as his wife and travels with her to Bethlehem, where the child is born and laid in a manger. Joseph hears the shepherds relay the message that the child is a Savior, and he marvels with Mary at the words of Simeon, who prophecies that the child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Although Joseph doesn’t speak he does listen to angels, who tell him to take Mary as wife, and warn him to flee to Egypt with his family to escape Herod’s wrath, and then advise him when it’s safe to return to Galilee.
The last we hear of Joseph is when Jesus is 12 years old and remains behind in Jerusalem after the Passover. His anxious parents find him three days later in the Temple, but it is only Mary, we are told, who “kept all these things in her heart.”
Nevertheless, it seems in all of this that Joseph unhesitatingly fulfilled the role of protector and provider for his wife and foster son.
Like Joseph, Mary is told by an angel not to fear; unlike Joseph, she dialogues with the divine messenger. With her “yes” to God Mary becomes the new Eve; by her obedience she brings into the world the Savior to undo the disobedience of the helpmeet of Adam, who by her “yes” to the serpent ushered sin into creation.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, the Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI points out that Mary and Joseph each had to discern for themselves certain aspects of their angelic visitations: Mary questioned the meaning of the greeting and Joseph decided that the dream was true. Each of them then freely chose to do God’s will, just as Eve and Adam chose to sin.
By giving humankind free will, God declined to force us to obey him. Therefore, “he cannot ravish. He can only woo,” as C.S. Lewis wrote.
God invited Mary to participate in his plan of salvation; she assented and so bore the Prince of Peace. Joseph assented to God’s will and while obeying his foster father the boy Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man, as the Gospel of Luke records.
While we await the arrival of the Christ Child at Christmas, might we not wonder what will happen if we, though not as full of grace as Mary nor as just as Joseph, nevertheless assent to do God’s will?
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.