Commentary on the Readings
Saint Joseph – March 19, 2020
He discovered and realized the dreams of God
Our sleep is accompanied by dreams, more or less tranquil. They allow us to free up our subconscious from negative experiences or to satisfy hidden desires. Frames of our past occur in them.
We also dream with open eyes and then we project ourselves into the future: how ecstatic for someone to contemplate the work that she is doing. She imagines it already concluded and anticipates the joy of success. Others cradle in chimeras to escape, if only for a few moments, from the depressing reality that worries and distresses them.
Sacred Scripture speaks of a third kind of dreams, those of the Lord. They are always in the present, are being realized. They are the mysterious plans of his love revealed to people in the starry nights—as happened to Abraham (Gen 15:5)—or in the endless nights of struggle with God, as happened to Jacob (Gen 32:23-33).
“God gives a warning in a dream, in a night vision, when deep sleep falls on people, while they slumber in their beds, it is then he opens their ears” (Job 33:14-16).
Drowsiness in the Bible means the time when the faculties are weakened. It is the condition of those who are not able to put up obstacles to the projects of the Lord because it is dormant in them the wisdom of this world—which is foolishness in God’s sight—.
Joseph, the husband of Mary, came into this “slumber”. Detached from himself and from their projects, he is available at all times, as the patriarchs, to accept the will of the Lord. This is why God made him partaker of his dreams. He had no visions; he heard only words. In reflection and prayer, he discovered the heavenly dreams about his family. He understood of being called to serve a sublime mission: to convey to Mary and the child of God who took his first steps in this world, the will of the Father who is in heaven.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Joseph, teach us to make God’s dreams our own.”
David was a brave warrior and a skilled politician, but certainly not a good father or a good educator of his children. With his example, he inculcated in them a single ideal: the conquest of power. And the consequences were dramatic. Nathan foresaw them: “The sword will never be far from your family” (2 Sam 12:10) and indeed the rivalry between his sons were not slow to manifest itself: Amnon, the beloved firstborn, was assassinated by his brother Absalom who, in turn, rioted against his father, and was killed by Joab. Chiliab, the other son, probably died during the same family feud. The kingdom would be for the fourth son, Adonijah, but the intrigues of the ambitious Bathsheba, the favorite, led David to designate Solomon as successor, who ordered a new crime, the killing of the brother Adonijah.
Witnessing these crimes and aware that the competition to occupy his throne would be continued even after his death, David poses an agonizing question: how long will my dynasty last? Will power end up soon in the hands of a usurper? He turned to Nathan—the seer of the court—and confided his indignation.
Today’s reading reports the answer given to him by God through the prophet: “Your house and your reign shall last forever before me, and your throne shall be forever firm.” David must have thought about a white lie, to a failure of Nathan to servility and flattery. Twenty-one dynasties had already occurred in Egypt and even the most glorious, the nineteenth that seemed timeless, that of Ramses and the Exodus, had lasted a little over a century, and then was gone, leaving the country in ruin. How could he believe that his family would have an everlasting kingdom?
Yet, God was pledging his loyalty with a solemn promise: The dynasty of David will endure forever. This is how Israel understood Nathan’s prophecy and, in the most dramatic moments of her history, she always referred to it, certain that the Lord would keep his word.
Among various events, for 400 years a descendant of David sat on the throne of Jerusalem. However, in 586 B.C. the Babylonians conquered the city and ended the monarchy. This was not only a military defeat but a tough test for the faith of the people who wondered: “Has the Lord perhaps revoked his promise?”
They were years of loss, but Israel also knew how to overcome this test. While she did not understand, she continued to believe in the Lord’s faithfulness. She began to look to the future and expected the descendant of David to whom the Lord would deliver an everlasting kingdom.
It was the beginning of messianic expectation. The fulfillment of the prophecy exceeded all expectations. Both David and Nathan dreamed of a kingdom of this world, but the Lord does not adapt to human projects, disrupts them, replacing them with his.
God raised up, in the family of David, a king, Jesus the son of Mary. Israel expected a conqueror of empires, the Lord answered by sending a weak, poor, helpless child. These are the surprises of God. Blessed are those who, like Joseph and Mary, are able to understand them and are willing to bring to fruition the dreams of the Lord!
Abraham is also the repository of a promise that, according to human criteria, can only be considered a dream. Both he and Sara are advanced in years and unable to generate, yet God assures them many descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand on the shore. Faced with Sarah’s perplexity who laughs in disbelief, God reminds Abram: “Is there anything that is impossible for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14). These are the words that the angel will direct to Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
Abraham trusts the Lord; he believes against all evidence that God is able to fulfill his dreams: in the barren womb of Sarah he will make life sprout, and to him, aimless and wandering Aramean, God will give a land.
What good work did Abraham accomplish to deserve God’s blessing? None. His only “merit” was the unconditional faith. He believed in the free gift of the Lord.
In the passage of the Letter to the Romans reported in today’s reading, Paul answers the question: Who belongs to Abraham’s descent? Who are the heirs of God’s promise?
The Israelites believed they were the only people chosen and privileged. Paul makes it clear: it is not the fact of being able to boast a blood bond with the descendants of Abraham that entitle the blessings of the Lord, but faith similar to his. Every person, in whatever nation he or she belongs becomes a son or daughter of Abraham if he or she trusts God as he did. It is in this sense that, in the Book of Genesis, God says to Abraham: “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).
Joseph, the husband of Mary, is a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, but that’s not what makes him great, but rather his faith. Like his ancestor (Gen 15:5) he also receives, during the night, the announcement of the extraordinary birth of a child. He does not yet clearly see what will be the dream of God. However, he trusts, believes and is willing to carry out the Lord’s plans, even if they remain for him still shrouded in mystery. Thus Joseph also becomes the son of Abraham by faith.
In our lives there are dark moments: they are the nights of pain, of abandonment, of loneliness, of disappointment, of defeat, of old age without any prospects and sometimes with regrets or troubled by remorse. They are the nights when we see our projects and our expectations collapsing, perhaps because of our unfaithfulness. These are the moments in which we are asked to continue to believe—like Abraham and like Joseph—that God still will accomplish his dreams, not for our own merits, but because of his unconditional loyalty to his word.
With a long and seemingly barren list of names, Matthew begins his Gospel: a page that most neglect to read. Only those who know the history of Israel feel involved and focused on each of those names. He slowly sees the film frames of all events—rarely happy, more often dramatic—of the life of that people. Abraham, the patriarchs, David and the kings of his miserable dynasty, until Christ, are remembered (Mt 1:1-17).
Today’s passage begins bringing the last verse of this genealogy: “... Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, and from her came Jesus who is also called Christ” (v. 16).
It is the solemn conclusion with which Matthew proclaims a first fundamental truth of the Christian faith: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the expected descendant of David, the Messiah which, in the words of Nathan the prophet, God promised an eternal kingdom.
After the genealogy is the annunciation to Joseph (Mt 1:18-24). Unlike Luke who focuses on the meeting of Mary with the angel Gabriel, and only marginally remembers Joseph (Lk 1:26-38), Matthew highlights the figure of this man as discreet as extraordinary, because it is through him that Jesus has joined the family of David.
Both these evangelists refer to real facts, but do not draw up the news pages: they present the figure of Jesus as—after Easter, and in the light of the Spirit—Christian communities have come to know him. Then one should not grope to merge the two stories as if they were news reports: this would divert the attention from the objective that the authors have set themselves; not only that, but it would force them to confront objections which would be difficult, if not impossible, to answer.
After this literary introduction, we see now the way in which the marriages were celebrated in Israel. They are performed in two stages. At first, the couple entered into a contract in front of parents and two witnesses. After signing the document called ketubbah, the two, despite being already married, do not start living together. They let another year pass, during which they should not meet. It was a time that allowed the two families to boost their friendly relations and the two spouses to mature, even physically. In fact, they got married very young—at 12-13-year-old for girls, 15-16 for the boys—and this was to be the age of Mary and Joseph.
After a year of waiting, a party is organized during which the bride—accompanied by her virgin companions—was brought into the house of the husband for the two to start living together.
It was during this time of interval that the annunciation to Mary and her pregnancy by the power of Holy Spirit took place.
Matthew immediately emphasizes this fact, to prevent doubt to creep in that Jesus was conceived through the intervention of a man.
The spirit, in this story, does not represent the male element (ruah—spirit—in Hebrew, is feminine), but indicate the creating divine breath, that spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of the world (Gen 1:2).
The virginal conception—which is also explicitly mentioned by Luke (Lk 1:26-39)—does not aim to bring out the moral superiority of Mary, nor, even less, represents a depreciation of sexuality. It is introduced to “reveal” a fundamental truth for the believer: Jesus is not only man; he comes from above, he is the same Lord who has assumed human form. To unequivocally communicate this truth—Matthew and Luke in accord affirm—God resorted to a creative act.
What happened after the Annunciation is not easy to establish and raises many questions. It seems incredible that Joseph, in spite of his righteousness, thought to take drastic measures against Mary, without even consulting her. How could he suspect that she had been unfaithful? In what sense was Joseph “just”: perhaps because he wanted to separate from Mary? There was no law obliging to divorce from the unfaithful wife. What Joseph was going to do would not have been a nice gesture, even if it was done “in secret.” Why did Mary not say anything to Joseph of the announcement that the Archangel Gabriel did? Or, if she told him, why did Joseph not believe her?
To these questions, someone replies: Mary must have said to her husband that the son she was waiting for came from God. She would have had no reason to keep secret a fact that he has the right to know. The doubt of Joseph then would not focus about fidelity or infidelity of his spouse but on his role in this extraordinary event. How could he give the name to a child not his? Would it not be an undue meddling in God’s plan? Not knowing what to do, he decided to step aside and wait for God to reveal his will to him.
While he was pondering on these things, the Lord manifested his project and the task he had to perform. This explanation is interesting and it gives a plausible reason for the title of “just” referred to Joseph. He had decided to step aside so as not to hinder the plan of God that he could not understand. But it has the limitation of being a supposition at which the Gospel text provides only a fragile foundation.
It’s better not to grope to find answers in the gospel to questions that we legitimately ask ourselves but that does not bring anything to our faith and that Matthew was not interested. The only thing that pressed the evangelist was that his readers would realize that the son of Mary was the heir to the throne of David, as announced by the prophets.
What is the role of Joseph in the realization of God’s plan? He is called in a dream. He is invited to enter into God’s dream. He was given two tasks: to accept Mary as his wife (v. 20) and to give a name to the child that will be born to her (v. 21). So the son of Mary will belong by right to the family of David “according to the flesh” as Paul declared in the second reading.
Mary has already given her assent to God’s plan for her; now it’s up to Joseph to pronounce his “yes.”
Both see the projects they did together being upset: they love each other; like all young people of their age they have planned a peaceful married life and are determined to behave as pious and God-fearing persons. Now the Lord is calling them, inviting them to break away from their dreams and to welcome his. As their father Abraham did, they also trust God. Mary asks for an explanation (Lk 1:34), Joseph did not ask even that.
An opportunity, an unexpected encounter, a happy event or a disease, a success or a failure can also mess up our lives and place ourselves in front of unexpected reality, perhaps even a dark and daunting future. Then discouragement, rejection, and rebellion can intervene. Joseph did the right and courageous choice: he adhered to the Lord’s will. The docility of this young man who, without saying a word, makes God’s designs his, is really admirable.
The second task entrusted to him was to give a name to the son of Mary. He will call him Jesus, which means, “The Lord is the savior”.
Israel cultivated high hopes of salvation that she identified with the liberation from foreign rulers and with the conquest of empires. Even the Roman historian Tacitus records this feverish anticipation: “Most of the Jews were convinced that it was written in the ancient texts of the priests that, at that time, the East would have proven its strength and that the men who left Judea would become masters of the world” (Hist. 5,13).
But conquering the world is not to liberate it. The angel of the Lord explained to Joseph the name of the child: “You shall call him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). He will not free them from the Roman oppression; he will not solve his people’s social and political problems; he will go to the root of the evils: he will deliver them from sin.
The true defeat of man is sin although, according to the criteria of this world, it is for many a good area, an enviable success. The early Christians had understood well the joyful message contained in the name of Jesus. Faith “in this name” gave them “the power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). In this name, they were baptized (Acts 2:38), will accomplish wonders (Mark 16:17-18), and for this name they were also pleased to endure insults and persecution (Acts 5:41).
In the world, Joseph was the first to pronounce it. He was also the first to hear him and certainly enjoy the discovery of the true identity of God: he is not the one who condemns, but only the “one who saves.”
The conclusion of the story is solemn. Throughout the passage, it seems to have been written to demonstrate the fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son and he will be called Emmanuel, which means God-with-us” (vv. 22-23).
Emmanuel is the second name by which God reveals his identity. He is the one who saves and is a God who is not alone. He is only happy when he’s with us, people.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.