A painting in the cathedral in Segovia, Spain, depicts the vision of an angel to St. Jospeh. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

The Annunciation to St. Joseph

Reflections on Matthew 1:18-25

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The Gospels do not contain a great deal of material about Joseph, the husband of Mary. The infancy narrative of Matthew provides most of what we have from the canonical Gospels (Mt 1:1—2:23). Some commentators are of the opinion that Joseph might have died after Jesus had reached his 12th year but before he began his public ministry around age 30. Thus Joseph would not have been around during the most important years of Jesus’ active ministry.

Whatever the case may be, we need to focus on the material we have and not hypostatize about what we do not have. Matthew 1:18-25 is filled with important material regarding who Jesus is, what he came to do and how he was to do it. Technically speaking, this is a Christological text, and right at the center of it all is no one other than Joseph. He is the central character in this intriguing drama.

We begin our reflection with the closing lines of Matthew’s genealogy: “Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (1:15-16). Here we learn that Joseph is the husband of Mary, who is the mother of Jesus, who is the Messiah. This leaves us with several unanswered questions. What is the relationship between Joseph and Jesus? How is Jesus understood to be the Messiah? These and other questions are addressed in Matthew 1:18-25. Some commentators view this passage as an enlarged footnote to Matthew 1:15-16. Here is a quick overview of the passage: a notation regarding the circumstances at hand (see Mt 1:18b-19); an appearance of the angel of the Lord in a dream (1:20); the annunciation of the angel to Joseph (1:20b); an explanation of the annunciation (1:20c); Joseph rises and obediently responds (1:24-25). The goal of these reflections is to unfold these principle points around which the passage is constructed.

Joseph’s Options

The circumstances surrounding this story are stated very concisely. Mary is betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal was the major component of what today would be understood as a marriage contract. It was a legally binding contract between a man and a woman, negotiated mostly by the parents of the couple. Any unfaithfulness during the betrothal period was considered the same as adultery and treated as such (stoning to death for the guilty parties, see Dt 22:23-24). Later on, the marriage would be completed by a ceremony, after which the bride would move into the household of the groom. No sexual relations were allowed during the betrothal period. Bride and groom lived in their parents’ household during this time. But now comes the problem. Mary is pregnant. The reader is told that she is pregnant through the Holy Spirit, but the people inside the story do not know that. They only know she is pregnant and that she is betrothed to Joseph. From all angles, this appears to be a tragic situation.
When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, he has several choices. Special emphasis is given to the fact that Joseph is a righteous or just man. This means he is law-abiding and obedient to the Torah. One of his options would be to accuse Mary of adultery in a legal arena and seek a trial. This would be to determine whether she was forced into sexual relations without her consent or whether she was a willing participant. This would be very public and very humiliating for Mary. Another option would be for Joseph to draw up a bill of divorce himself, forgo a public trial and, with two witnesses, declare the marriage annulled. In this case justice is tempered by mercy, and Joseph chooses to quietly divorce Mary and quickly get this sad situation behind him. But much to his surprise, there is more to come.

God Intervenes

Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary is altered drastically by a revelation he receives from an angel of the Lord who appears to him in a dream (see Mt 1:20). God communicating with humans through dreams is rather common in the Bible. The famous patriarch, Joseph, son of Jacob, was well-known as a great interpreter of dreams (see Gn 37:5-11, 19). He was also wise and just and quite possibly could have influenced Matthew’s portrait of Joseph, the husband of Mary. The angel of the Lord provides crucial information to Joseph that drastically changes his course of action.

‘The Power to Assist
Us in all Cases’
“Some saints are
privileged to extend
to us their patronage
with particular efficacy
in certain needs, but
not in others; but our
holy patron St. Joseph
has the power to
assist us in all cases,
in every necessity, in
every undertaking.
we confidently invoke
your patronage also.”
— St. Thomas Aquinas

First, the angel informs Joseph that he should take Mary as his wife and fulfill the marriage contract by bringing her into his home. Second, the angel explains to Joseph that Mary, indeed, is pregnant, but through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is a virginal conception, and Matthew clearly supports this teaching. Stories of virginal conceptions were not unheard of in biblical times. Births without the participation of a human father appear in Hellenistic and Egyptian reports. They most generally refer to the special birth of kings, national heroes and philosophers. Many commentators think Matthew is well acquainted with the legends about the birth of Moses, which are found in a variety of Jewish Moses Haggadah (Haggadah refers to nonlegal material in rabbinic literature. It often is the amplification of biblical texts through narrative, story, legend and folktale). In general the Haggadah is the rabbinic story of the birth of the Jews as a people. Commentators also point out that there are more than a few parallels between Moses and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew itself. Keep in mind, however, that the virginal conception serves the purpose of pointing to the function of Jesus more than to his nature. He will have a major role to play in God’s salvation. Nevertheless, the virginal conception is not meant to be the main point of the story.

The main point of the story clearly is the divine identity of Jesus, which the angel discloses to Joseph. It is important that Joseph is referred to as a “son of David.” He is a member of the house of David, and, as such, he is able to provide the connecting link between Jesus and the house of David. It was from the house of David that the Messiah was expected to come (see 2 Sm 7:8-17).

Most important is the content of the message that the angel of the Lord announces to Joseph. At this point, Joseph will be the only person in the story to know this vital information. In addition to the role of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s virginal conception, it is Joseph who is to give the child a name. His name will be Jesus, which was not an uncommon name in first-century Palestine. It is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. In Hebrew that name is usually translated as “YHWH is salvation.” That, of course, describes exactly what the angel declares that Jesus will do (see Mt 1:21). For Matthew it is extremely important that Jesus be recognized truly as the son of Joseph, because only in that relationship was he an authentic descendant of David. Because Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus, the way he becomes linked to Joseph is through adoption. This adoption takes place when Joseph names the child Jesus. Naming the child is equal to taking adoptive responsibility for him and legally bringing him into the family. Thus Jesus is a member of the household of David through Joseph adopting him as his own son.

Fulfilling the Prophecy

All the pieces are now in place, and so Matthew brings the story to a climax by claiming all this to be in fulfillment of the prophetic word of Isaiah: “The young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel” (7:14), which means “God is with us” (Mt 1:23). The Hebrew version of Isaiah 7:14 employs the word “alma,” which is translated “young woman.” Matthew is using the Greek version (Septuagint), which translates “alma” as “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” The fulfillment quotation is a favorite literary device of Matthew, and he uses it 10 times throughout his Gospel. It functions as a reflection by the Evangelist on the meaning of events in the life of Jesus. The speaker of the quotation is understood to be the Lord God. The purpose of the quotation here is to prepare the readers for the claim that the virgin’s son is in fact the Son of God.

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Joseph, A ‘Constant Model’ For Priests

“Dear brothers and sisters, our meditation on the human and spiritual journey of St. Joseph invites us to ponder his vocation in all its richness, and to see him as a constant model for all those who have devoted their lives to Christ in the priesthood. … Joseph was caught up at every moment by the mystery of the Incarnation. Not only physically, but in his heart as well, Joseph reveals to us the secret of a humanity which dwells in the presence of mystery and is open to that mystery at every moment of everyday life. In Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way.”

Pope Benedict XVI, March 18, 2009

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Central to this fulfillment quotation is the name Emmanuel. It describes who Jesus is. He is “God with us.” Jesus is not a figure of the past. He is the one who accompanies and carries his Church. This is emphasized again at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus commissions his disciples. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). For Jesus, the virginal conception is not the central content of faith. The virginal conception serves as a conceptual basis for expressing how Jesus is Emmanuel. This fulfillment quotation serves as a thumbnail definition of Matthew’s Son of God Christology. Jesus is “God with us.”

The story ends with Joseph waking from his dream and obeying all that the Lord had instructed him to do. Mary does bear a son, and he is named Jesus. This entire episode contains only seven verses. But what is lacking in quantity is abundantly present in quality. This is Joseph’s finest hour. Every crucial aspect focuses in some way upon him. Not only is he just and righteous, he also is merciful and compassionate. This enables him to provide the essential connecting link between Jesus and the house of David. Because of Joseph, Jesus became Emmanuel.

God Is with Us

After Chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph completely vanishes from the story and will appear no more. While many readers would like to have more Joseph content, there is no need. Joseph does all he needs to do in seven verses of Chapter 1. He is the ideal instrument through which God works to accomplish the divine plan of salvation. He is portrayed as a man of trust, boldness and integrity. His task is to oversee the birth of the Messiah. He possesses many of the wise characteristics found in his namesake, Joseph son of Jacob (see Gn 37-50). Both trusted in dreams. They dreamed God’s dreams.

Let me suggest at this point that there is an important lesson here for the Church and especially all those who preach and teach the Gospel. Sometimes God’s revelation is too rich and powerful to be captured, carefully worked out and articulated in systematic concepts. This kind of revelation comes from the heart more than from the head. It needs a medium that can support surprise and vision. Such a medium is the dream. Thus it is not by accident that the Gospel writer, Matthew, chose dreams through which to communicate the radical message of the birth of the Messiah. This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. There was a dreamer whose name was Joseph.

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Throughout these reflections we have been focusing on Joseph, the husband of Mary, as the main character in the drama. His role in the history of salvation was limited but theologically profound. He is bigger than a historical character. He is a theological type characterized by his confidence that God speaks to and encounters people through dreams. In Joseph’s case, his dream was prophetic. It was about more than the birth of Jesus. It was about the promise that the Son of God would be with us always. That dream and that promise is very much with us today, thanks to Joseph, the husband of Mary.

FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.