Sunday, December 19, 2004

St. Joseph: Adversity revealed his true character.

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 19, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 1: 18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2004]

It’s been said that “Adversity reveals character.”

Adversity reveals character.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. When you’re in the midst of a trial—when you’re put into a very stressful situation where your patience and love are put to the test—your true character will often show through. The kind of person you really are will be revealed.

And that’s the way it was with St. Joseph.

Perhaps it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the difficulty this good man faced when he learned that Mary was pregnant. After all, we know how everything worked out. We know that this story would eventually have a happy ending.

But Joseph didn’t know that! In fact, from his perspective, this story could have easily had a disastrous ending, especially for Mary—and for Mary’s Child!

The text says explicitly that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph when she became pregnant. Now please understand, this did not mean that she and Joseph were engaged to each other in the modern sense of that term. In ancient Israel, betrothal was actually the first stage of marriage. It took place roughly a year before the couple consummated their relationship and lived together as husband and wife. But, according to Mosaic Law, during this 12-month interim period the couple was still legally married. Hence, a betrothed woman who had relations with another man was guilty of the sin of adultery. And the penalty for adultery was clearly stated in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22. There we read the following: “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Obviously when he first learned that Mary was pregnant, Joseph did not know she had gotten that way through a supernatural event! He couldn’t possibly have known that! He presumed it had taken place by natural means. He probably said to himself, “This is shocking. I’ve always known Mary to be holy and righteous, but I guess even holy and righteous people can be tempted and fall into sin.”

The bottom line is that he initially thought his otherwise saintly wife had been unfaithful to him.

It was then—in the midst of this disappointment and stress and (probably) anger—that Joseph demonstrated the type of person he really was. This terrible adversity—this apparent tragedy—helped to reveal his true character.

First of all, he showed that he was a man of deep moral conviction AND at the same time a man of deep human compassion. He couldn’t ignore his wife’s apparent unfaithfulness; to him this was a sin that needed to be confronted, not “swept under the rug.” In that, he demonstrated his moral conviction. And yet, he still had a loving compassion for Mary. Even when he suspected that she had been unfaithful, he wasn’t willing to “throw the book at her” (so to speak), by making the sin public. If he had done that, our Blessed Mother (as I indicated a few minutes ago) would have been stoned to death.

His compassion and conviction led him to make the decision to divorce Mary quietly. Divorce was allowed under Mosaic Law at the time, and it was necessary here because they were already in the first stage of marriage.

We live in a world right now where many people think it’s either conviction OR compassion: either you have to be a cold-hearted legalist when it comes to the commandments of God and have no compassion for others, or you have to be a wishy-washy “nice guy” who has no solid moral convictions about important issues of the day. (Many of our Catholic politicians have fallen into that latter category in recent years, have they not?)

Joseph shows us that this is a false dichotomy. It’s a lie! It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. As Catholics we are not to be either people of conviction OR people of compassion, we are to be people of both conviction AND compassion—like Joseph was!

Secondly, in the midst of this apparent crisis, Joseph demonstrated that he was very open-minded. Now the interesting thing is, in today’s world he would be called the exact opposite. In modern western culture, Joseph would definitely be labeled “narrow-minded.”


Because he was open-minded only when it came to the truth! He was not “open-minded” when it came to error and sin! When the angel revealed to him the truth about Mary and her pregnancy—that she had conceived this child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the child was the divine Son of God who would save the world from sin—Joseph immediately accepted it. He was open-minded to the truth of God’s word as spoken to him through this heavenly messenger.

In today’s world, of course, “open-minded” is normally used to describe those who accept and promote gross moral evils—especially in the area of sexuality. Those who embrace Biblical moral principles and accept the truth of God’s word as proclaimed by his Church are considered to be hopelessly narrow-minded.

Well, if that’s your perspective, if that’s where you stand—and I pray it is—then take heart: St. Joseph would be right there with you.

No doubt about it.

These are just two aspects of Joseph’s character that shine through brilliantly in this well-known scene from the Gospel of Matthew. There are, of course, many others I could have mentioned. In this story, for example, we also see that Joseph was a man of great courage, who was ready to do the right thing regardless of what other people might say. We see that he was a man who walked by faith, not by his feelings. We see that he was someone who believed that God could do great things—even “impossible” things.

And, amazingly, we see all these truths, we know all these things about St. Joseph and his character, without ever hearing him speak a single word.

Did you realize that?

In the entire New Testament, not one single word of St. Joseph is recorded!

It must have been in reference to him that the old saying was first coined: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Joseph’s actions—especially in times of adversity—clearly revealed his character, and showed him to be a holy, faithful, obedient servant of God.

St. Joseph, pray for us, that we will be the same—especially in our moments of adversity.