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.
I’m changing my pattern of writing for a while. I’m picking different foci in the passage and will speak to them individually. This week I will look at the human predicament Joseph faced, the difference between being righteous and being loving and finally the implications of love as a choice.
You’re engaged to be married and you discover months before the wedding that your partner is having another man’s child. She explains that this is God’s child and she had surrendered herself to God’s word. Do you believe her? In real life, is this explanation much better than the dog eating my homework? Are you hurt, angry, vengeful? Do you seek retaliation, reconciliation? Or perhaps are you humiliated and embarrassed and you hope it is all a bad dream.
These things happen in real life. I had one man in my practice who, when he learned his fiancee had been unfaithful, sent emails to both his and her family graphically describing her infidelity. (These two later decided to reconcile and these emails made their first family Thanksgiving dinner very awkward). In another case, a woman discovered her fiance had fathered a child while he was pursuing her. They have not spoken since and she spent well over a year dealing with her feelings of betrayal and loss.
Very few of us want to give up a relationship when we have invested our hearts. And, at the same time, very few of us are willing to risk being burned again—’Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ These are conundrums of real life relationships. What are we willing to risk? What are we able to forgive? We face these difficulties with our partners, our children and our friends. How we respond in any particular situation is idiosyncratic, fluid and uncertain. As much as we wish we could have clear answers, there is no ‘one size fits all’ for the relationships of our lives. We are called to lives of discernment. Even guidelines that tell us we should forgive seven times seventy leave room for the times we can’t. Our faith gives us a direction not an answer. As C.S. Lewis put it, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
RIGHTEOUSNESS VS LOVING
Whatever Mary told Joseph and whatever struggles Joseph went through, we read he had resolved to put Mary and her child in the rear view mirror. By law, Joseph had the right to humiliate and punish Mary but we are told Joseph was a righteous man and had decided to dismiss Mary quietly. By the standards of his own day and certainly by ours, Joseph’s decision was understandable and even kind. Raising a child as an unwed mother would have been difficult at best (that hasn’t changed over the centuries) but it certainly was better than the stoning that could have been inflicted.
It also provided Joseph the opportunity for a do over. He could find a new wife unencumbered by a child he had not fathered. Then as now, few would be critical of Joseph’s hesitancy to take on the responsibility of raising a child that was not his. It is not so different in today’s world. There are many people on contemporary dating sites that filter out potential partners if they have children. No one would have faulted Joseph for his decision. Mary had made her bed, now she could lie in it. There was no legal or moral requirement for Joseph to support Mary and her child.
But then Joseph has a dream. He is told to reverse his decision. Even though Joseph was a righteous man who sought to obey the law and an honorable man who sought to be kind in the way he was separating from Mary, God wanted more. Joseph is told both to stay with Mary and to name the baby—which served to formally claim Jesus as his own. God calls Joseph to a higher standard. Joseph had the right to go his own way but God called him to do the loving thing. It was not sufficient to be kind by dismissing Mary quietly, God called Joseph to set aside what seemed best for him in order to do what was best for her and her unborn child.
LOVE IS A CHOICE
It is easy to enjoy the part of love that is a warm feeling of safety and intimacy but from the very opening of the gospels we begin to realize that what God intends is a whole lot more than that feeling. Love is choosing to regard. Love is choosing, within our human limits, to enhance and cherish another. Nobody asks Joseph (or any of us), if he felt like loving. He was asked to claim and to choose.
Anyone who has had a committed relationship or who has cared for another life knows that it is inconvenient to love. Loving requires focus and mindfulness to notice others and more to set aside our self interest in order to choose to enhance another. It means late night feeding; it means doing chores when you’d rather do almost anything else; it means going to work when our job is more tedious than rewarding. These are but a few of the unsung ways we communicate that someone matters to us. People who live this way will tell you they are ‘just doing what I’m supposed to do.’ But they forget doing what is loving is always a choice. No one makes us love and many do not make those choices.
It is easier to see the decision to choose and to cherish in cases of adoption but that same intentionality is required in any relationship that claims to be loving. When we decide to have a partner or when we decide to have a child, we are choosing and claiming another human being. Many people choose not to have the children they have conceived and many people choose not to stay in a relationship—their good intentions and marriage vows notwithstanding. I am not here to advocate the wisdom of these choices. My point is that they are choices.
Another way to see these choices in action is when genetic testing reveals an unexpected familial relationship. Children find their birth parents, parents find children they thought they would never see. Adults receive emails from siblings they did not know existed. In each case, choices have to be made. I have a fifty year client who received such an email from a sister he did not know existed. Will they become a family based upon blood? If so, they must choose to. Blood connections are not sufficient.
Choosing to adopt or choosing to be a step parent is costly both financially and emotionally. It is a big decision to choose someone who already has children. It is just as likely to be a thankless job that drives a wedge between couples as it is a new alliance that provides safety and care. Even in the best of situations, the new parent is likely to hear “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my mother/father!” at least once. No one is obligated to take on such a role but if we do, we like Joseph will be asked to choose and claim not just the partner, but the whole family as well.
I can not imagine that Joseph felt particularly special to Mary when he learned of her pregnancy. Loving her was not about what he would get from her, what he ‘deserved’ or even what was conventionally expected. Joseph had to be told what God wanted. He then had to choose between what he had already decided and what God called him to do. We are so familiar with the story, we forget that both Mary and Joseph were willing to move forward when the steps ahead were difficult and uncertain. When they did so, Joseph was the instrument through which the ancient prophecy was fulfilled. It was through adoption, not blood lines that Jesus is a descendant of the house of David.
The birth stories of Jesus teach us that family is a much bigger word than blood connections and conventional alliances. God’s family is based upon God’s choosing and cherishing us. It is something we are all promised and it is something we all need. The son of God was no exception.
This is the season we await a light shining in the darkness. As we wait, we get a glimpse of what gives life in the parents who raised Jesus. Jesus was molded and shaped by two people who listened to God. With the promise that we are all God’s beloved children, we are called to love and cherish one another. It is the way to life and is what will save us.
May we live in the confidence that we have been chosen—and that choosing to love others is the way to life. Let it be so.