18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
We learn the stories about the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Gospel of St. Luke. St. Matthew’s version of birth focuses on Joseph and his perspective, while St. Luke focuses on Mary. Today we will talk about Christ from Joseph’s point of view. We'll look at Mary’s viewpoint on Christmas Eve.
Jesus is adopted by Joseph.
“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 1:18b)
Mary and Joseph were not “engaged” the way we think about engagement in the USA. Rather, the two were “betrothed.”
When a couple wants to be married in our culture, there are some norms and expectations about how they will do so, at least for heterosexual couples. (Note: For this example, I’ll focus on heterosexual couples because their norms around marriage proposal are a bit more established and well-known. This is not intended to ignore the marriage and engagement practices currently being developed by the American LGBTQ+ community.)
Sometimes a man will first ask the father of his girlfriend for her hand in marriage, though that is increasingly less common. Then, at a special moment, the man bends on one knee, presents a ring, and asks the woman if she will marry him. Then the couple announces their engagement to their families and friends and begins the arduous work of planning a wedding.
This is a common enough ritual that people follow, but notice that engagement is still basically informal. While it might be embarrassing to call off an engagement, it is as simple as a couple agreeing to break up and canceling whatever wedding plans they have already made.
On the other hand, in Mary and Joseph’s culture (1st century BCE Judea), the norm for marriage was betrothal. For a couple to be betrothed, their families had to enter into a formal, legally binding agreement. From the time of the betrothal, the couple was considered husband and wife, but they were not to live together or have sexual relations until their marriage ceremony. The betrothal period was usually about one year. At that time, the woman would move out of her father’s house and into her husband’s.
When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, and he knew that he was not the father, he must have assumed that she was unfaithful to him. Because they were betrothed, unfaithfulness would be more than a personal betrayal; it would be adultery with all its legal, moral, and spiritual implications. The only way to end their engagement was through divorce (with a trial before a local court), or one’s death.
As a matter of fact, the Law in Deuteronomy prescribed death to a woman who cheated on her husband, or was found not to be a virgin on her wedding day. A husband whose wife was unfaithful was commanded to bring her to the rest of the town and stone her to death (Deut 22:20-24). We recognize that such a law is both archaic and barbaric, but it is important to recognize that Joseph grew up with this commandment. It was his Scripture, the Word of God he heard in synagogue.
But this is not the path Joseph chose to take. He did not follow the letter of the Law as he understood it. He did not take his feelings of pain and betrayal and exact vengeance on Mary. No, instead “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
It seemed that Mary has committed adultery. Therefore, it seemed like Joseph’s plan was to disobey the Law of God. He showed mercy and kindness to an “unfaithful wife.”
Of course we know that Mary was not unfaithful. There is a bit of dramatic irony at play here. She did not sin against her husband in receiving the child from the Holy Spirit. In fact, Mary’s acceptance of the divine call to bear God Incarnate was the bravest most faithful thing she could do.
We know this about Mary as we read the Gospel story, but remember that Joseph did not. He decided to kindly and quietly dismiss Mary before he saw the vision of the angel. He did not know that Mary was innocent. Yet, even without any knowledge of the true circumstances, Joseph proved to be a merciful person.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to withhold judgment when we feel wronged. Remember to show mercy before judgment.
In the dream, the angel says that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit, not of a man. In other words, Joseph learns what we already know. Mary is a faithful and true spouse, not deserving the penalty of death. Joseph was right to offer mercy before judgment.
The angel then explains, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This is crucial. Joseph is to name him. In their culture, if a man names a child, he is claiming before God and the community that he is the father of that child. So when Joseph names Mary’s boy Jesus (v. 25), Joseph adopts him as his own son.
In 1st Century Judean culture, adoption carried more weight than it often does today. They made no legal or hereditary distinctions between biological and adopted children. This means that, regardless of Jesus’ biology, he inherited Joseph’s family line. Joseph was descended from King David, and, if for no other means than by adoption, Jesus was a son of David too.
It's a little bit confusing to modern ears, but this is how this ancient culture worked. It explains why Matthew spends the first 17 verses of his Gospel telling us about Joseph’s family tree. Mary conceived of Jesus by the Holy Spirit as a virgin, and Joseph is Jesus’ true (adopted) father.
We too are adopted by God
This understanding of adoption is key to the rest of our theology. We believe that we are adopted by the Father through our union with Christ in baptism.
St. Paul writes, “4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Gal 4:4-7).
Joseph serves as a type or symbol of our relationship with God the Father. Joseph adopts the Son of God as his own and treats him and his Mother with kindness, gentleness, and love that the world would say they do not deserve. He is treated as an heir to the throne of David through the bonds of affection between Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Love overcomes all the obstacles to their family union.
This is what happens to us in baptism. We who are far off from our Creator through sin, are invited to draw near. The Son of God comes to the earth looking to bring God’s lost children home. When we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, we receive “sonship,” that is, God treats us the way the Father treats the Son, Jesus Christ.
We are adopted into the family of Israel, the chosen people whom God saves by grace. We are adopted into the promises God made to Noah, to Abraham, and to Moses.
We are adopted into the holy, catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ on this earth and built by the Apostles. We are part of a church family that can and should be stronger than even family ties. We are invited to adopt one another as God has adopted us, to grow and expand this community of God’s embrace.
Finally, we are adopted as God’s own and welcomed into a family that is bound together not by blood and genetics, but by the more powerful bonds of love. We are adopted into the eternal community of love: the Holy, Undivided Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is our true calling, the true fruits of our redemption. God adopts us and calls us heirs. Now we may speak with boldness as the Son of God speaks: “Abba, Father.” And more importantly, now we may rest in confidence that we are totally loved, as the Father loves the Son loves the Spirit loves the Father loves the Son loves the Spirit loves the Father… forever and ever; Amen.
Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.