St. Joseph is an integral part of the story of Advent, but let’s not be too facile about his calling to be the foster-father of Jesus Christ. Joseph’s obedience to the Angel’s message, his embrace of the truth of it, and his prompt action were extremely courageous elements of his role in the events that changed the course of history. Joseph the Fearless I call him, a well-deserved title in the face of the obstacles that he had to overcome in order to be the Messiah’s Guardian. All men have to ask themselves if they would have been up to the job, as Joseph was.

Sheer terror would have been his first obstacle. There is every reason to believe that Joseph’s initial reaction to the message of the Angel was, “This is just crazy.” Crazy indeed. The idea that a woman (not just any woman but his betrothed) would become physically pregnant by the Holy Spirit isn’t shocking to us who have heard this message many times during the course of our Christian lives. We’ve grown used to the concept. But what about the man who was hearing it for the first time in history? It must have been sheer terror. Any quick-minded man would have ticked off his list of objections: didn’t ask for this; didn’t go to school for this; not ready for this; what in the world is going on? Why now? And so on.

Joseph’s interior struggle to accept a difficult message is the fight of every man who is asked to believe in God’s Will without having a full understanding of its significance or implications. He wasn’t a lawyer, a Pharisee, or a businessman in the strict sense. He didn’t get all the details on paper before he signed on the dotted line. The interior virtue needed for his docility of will was that of unbreakable faith: a wholesale trust in the messenger and the message as worthy of acceptance, despite the preposterous nature of the project.

Joseph’s second obstacle was highly personal; let’s call it vocational. His initial reaction to the Angel’s message might have sounded like this: “You want me?” or “You want me to do what?” Again, the obstacle was interior: he had to accept in his heart that the plan somehow involved him very personally and totally. In addition, there were clear long-term implications of the plan – namely, a radical change of life that would make some serious demands on him and extract every ounce of energy and manhood from him. Being the Messiah’s dad was unlikely to be a part-time job. The fearless one seemed to embrace the sea change of his life with a vigorous and rugged flexibility that can only be called heroic. He “got up” from his dream and immediately went to work.

I see Joseph in the same vein as Simon of Cyrene (thirty years later) whose life changed instantly by his unexpected encounter with Christ. Christian iconography tends to picture Simon as an unwilling recruit along the Way of the Cross, a guy minding his own business who was suddenly catapulted into service that was not part of his view of the future. Joseph, in contrast, shaking off any initial reluctance, sprinted toward his calling, allowing his life to be defined by this event, embracing everything that it implied, and never looking back. Fearless. He is the patron saint of all men who find themselves at the crossroads of unexpected – and perhaps unwanted – tasks, unsure of themselves but nonetheless welcoming with a manly, unconquerable spirit the responsibilities that have been suddenly thrust upon them.

Joseph’s third obstacle was external. “What will the neighbors think?” is the mantra of this obstacle. Again, let’s not whitewash the burden of the social stigma he faced, especially in the tightly-knit religious culture of first century Palestine. His first reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, as a righteous man, was to “divorce her quietly” – an acquiescent response to what seemed to be a violation of the Law he loved so deeply. We can furthermore discern the fear of social and religious repercussions in the background. Not only “What will they think?” but “What will they do to us?” His intrepid acceptance of the Angel’s word did not take away the risk of social stigma of his situation, but in Joseph’s typical fashion, he “dealt with it”. A fearless man in all that God wanted.

We know almost nothing about the life and personality of Joseph, foster-father of the Messiah. The scriptures are maddeningly silent on biographical details. We don’t even know how this Patriarch of patriarchs died. It will be unmitigated bliss to make his acquaintance in heaven and find out from him directly what went on behind the scenes of the Gospel, but we aren’t there yet. Right now we are anticipating that future heavenly meeting with Advent expectation and thus have to read between the lines of the Gospel narrative in order to understand something of the man who was tapped for the greatest dad job in history.

When I read the scant information about Joseph I see an utterly fearless man: amazingly, he overcame some terrifying internal and external challenges to give his wholehearted “yes” to a mysterious plan set out rather schematically by an Angel who showed up one night and made enormous demands on him. If he had any plans for his life up to that point, he cast them off with a candor that can only be described as reckless. He did so in order to evaluate his life by no other measure than what God “needed”; that little Baby who was God needed a strong man in His life.

His example for us is an awesome lesson in fearless manhood: he didn’t know what the future held; he only knew that he held the Future in his arms.

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