JOSEPH, THE HUSBAND OF MARY (Matthew 1:18-25)
The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Hicksville, New York. December 18, 2016)
In the town of Irisan near Baguio City, Philippines there is an Episcopal Church named “Joseph, the Husband of Mary.” This was the first time I heard of such a parish in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP) and so I googled and found a number of Roman Catholic Churches named “Joseph, the Husband of Mary” including a huge church in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The name honors the role that Joseph played as husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Unlike in some Christian quarters where Joseph is de-emphasized, in the rural Philippines Joseph is quite popular. At some point of time, during my childhood in predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, I thought that the Holy Trinity means “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
When I sneezed my devout grandmother, a folk Catholic, would quickly make a sign of the cross and utter “Susmariasep” which is the murdered pidgin version of “Jesus Mary and Joseph!” She also told us to pray this Ilonggo prayer before we take a bath: “Susmaryasep, apok masakit, kadto sa manggaranon,may sarang galastuhon.” (Jesus, Mary and Joseph; take my sickness away and let it go to the rich, they have the bucks to pay the docs.” ) I guess it might have worked for I seem to outhealth my richer schoolmates, but that's another matter.
So what exactly is the role of St. Joseph in the history of our salvation? What sacrifices did he make to protect his wife, Mary and the Holy Child of God? How did he serve as mentor to Jesus? There are three things which was unique to Joseph, the husband of Mary:
I. Joseph loved Mary to the point of self-sacrifice.
The Gospel this morning begins: “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
Before they came together, Mary was found to be pregnant. Can you imagine what this means to Joseph? Can you imagine what this means in the context of patriarchal, conservative, small town of Nazareth where they lived?
Walls in small towns have ears and this was an invitation for gossip. Young Mary must have relations with another man prior to her engagement to old man Joseph! The Bible further says, “Because Joseph was faithful to the law and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace so he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Do you know what was the law operating in the mindset of that time? It was no different from the fundamentalist, Islamic jihadist ISIS. The punishment is death!
The Book of Deuteronomy says about the law on sexual promiscuity: “If the man finds out that her bride is not a virgin and no proof of her virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death” (Deuteronomy 22:21). The groom himself shall participate in the stoning, even the father of the young woman will participate in the stoning.
So it was a very serious situation. The Bible did not highlight this danger because it was more concerned with establishing the fulfillment of the prophecy that a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, but the gospel of Luke gives us a hint when it says:“At that time, Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah” (Lk.1:39)
That hill country is the village of Ein Karem, around five miles from Jerusalem and quite a long distance from Nazareth. And “hurried” means escape! It is my hunch and the hunch of many biblical scholars that Joseph and Mary had to escape, to flee from Nazareth and hide in Ein Karem in the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.
In 2010, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel and Palestine and went to Ein Karem. It was in that place that Mary sung the song Magnificat “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and where Elizabeth sang what would later be a Roman Catholic angelus “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”
II. Joseph Protected Jesus from Herod
When Jesus was born, Israel was ruled by wicked King Herod I. He was Herod, the Great who would not want another king of the Jews. Herod I was the father of an equally wicked Herod Antipas. Antipas was the King who himself would later order the crucifixion of Jesus, the Man. Jesus, the Child would have already been killed by Herod I had it not for Joseph.
Joseph named the Son of God “Jesus,” in the Hebrew word “Yoshua” which means ”God Saves.” This name would be a prophetic word for the Messiah who comes to save the world. But this Savior of the world must first be saved---and that role belongs to Joseph.
The Bible tells us that when the Three Magi went to see Jesus, they passed by Herod I who told them once they see Jesus the Child, they should return and make their report. They disobeyed Herod because they sensed that he had something else in mind so they went on another route. But when they left, Joseph had a dream. In that dream, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said, “Get up, take the Child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stayed there until I tell you to come back for Herod was searching for you and he wants to kill the child.”
Joseph bundled Jesus again and left with Mary to escape to Egypt. They stayed in Egypt as “undocumented immigrants” until King Herod died (Cf. Matthew 2:13-15.) So now that you know, you should tell President-Elect Donald Trump that Jesus was also an also an undocumented immigrant, a Refugee seeking asylum hoping for a safe world.
It is a divine irony that the One who owns the world and everything in it, has to be a Refugee in the land He made. Perhaps it is to show us to be kind to strangers. And so when we welcome the undocumented immigrants and refugees, we may be welcoming Jesus unaware!
III. Joseph was Mentor to Jesus
When Herod died, the Holy Family went back to Nazareth, their hometown. There Joseph worked as a carpenter. It was said that Joseph manufactured best yokes in town. A yoke is a wooden beam used to fit the neck of an ox to enable it to pull a heavy load or to plow a field. A good yoke is one that is neither too loose nor too tight but one that perfectly fits the neck of an ox---and the yokes made by Joseph was of good quality that oxen found it easy to carry their load.
That is why when Jesus talked about resting in God, He must have made reference to the yoke of Joseph. He called out to the workers, the laborers, those who are stressed out, those who are harassed and helpless, those who are about to give up and said: “Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Yes, the yoke made by Joseph, the carpenter, was easy and will make your burdens light. Where Jesus learned to memorize the Word of God, the psalms and the proverbs from his mother Mary, He learned of the practical matters of ministry from his foster father, Joseph.
The impact of Joseph upon Jesus was so great that when He was speaking about being the Bread of Life and all the amazing parables of life, accompanied by the miracles from His hand, the people in the synagogues would say, “Where did this Man get His wisdom and these miraculous powers? Isn’t He the carpenter’s son?”
So today, we honor Joseph the Husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Jesus is not only the only-begotten Son of God; He is also the carpenter’s son. May the tribe of Joseph increase among us. Amen.