It is not known how the town carpenter found out that his betrothed was pregnant. Perhaps she told him herself after returning from a months-long journey to visit relatives (Luke 1:38, 56). Written accounts would later report though that she was “found” to be with child, as if the news was not shared by the pregnant woman but was the result of an independent discovery (Matt. 1:18). A young woman visibly pregnant with her first child before her marriage nuptials were completed would certainly be a cause for discussion in a small town.
All that the carpenter knew for certain was that the expected child was not his, and that posed an extremely difficult legal dilemma for a man committed to observing the tenets of his religion so scrupulously that he was reputed to be a tzadik (Hebrew, “just man”; cf. Matt. 1:19). The Law was clear: A betrothed virgin found to have had relations with another man could be put to death (Deut. 22:23–27). A woman who had been found to be indecent in some way could be given a divorce (Deut. 24:1). There was no provision in the Law that would allow for the carpenter to go through with the marriage and accept the child as his own—especially if the child turned out to be a boy who, as his legally recognized firstborn son, stood to inherit his patrimony as a son of David.
Weighing on the other side of the balance though was the carpenter’s knowledge of his betrothed. Likely he had known her most of his life. Perhaps they had grown up together, or perhaps he had been entrusted with her care by her parents, believed to have been quite elderly when she was born.
Either way, this was a woman he knew, trusted, and loved. This was a woman he was willing to accept great personal sacrifice to marry (cf. Luke 1:34). That she would have deliberately betrayed him probably was unthinkable. And if she had not deliberately betrayed him—if there was the possibility that she was an innocent person caught up in circumstances beyond her control—then how could he expose her and her expected child to punishment?
Ordinarily legal dilemmas of this kind would be presented to a local religious authority for adjudication. Perhaps the carpenter thought about talking to his rabbi. But there were a couple of problems with that course of action. One, as someone committed to following the Law, he would then be bound by the rabbi’s interpretation of the Law—a decision that likely would be based purely on the Law and not necessarily on the personal knowledge the carpenter had of his betrothed. And, two, even if the rabbi was discreet, there was always the possibility that the truth of the paternity of the child of his betrothed would become more widely known if he said anything to anyone.
So the carpenter was on his own on this one. He dared not discuss the situation with the local religious authorities; he was compelled in conscience to follow the Law to the best of his understanding; and he was unwilling to expose his betrothed to public shame. The best he could do, it seemed to him, was to “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). Perhaps he hoped he would still be able to privately provide for her and the child, even if he was legally prohibited from marriage to her and from accepting her child as his own.
Then he went to sleep.
But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (Matt. 1:20–25).
Perhaps you are wondering why I framed this narrative without directly mentioning St. Joseph or the Blessed Virgin until just now. Mainly, I wanted to remove from their story some of the presuppositions Christians attach to well-known biblical stories, and to sharpen the stakes of the very difficult religious legal dilemma that St. Joseph faced.
We are used to making assumptions about St. Joseph’s state of mind, based on theories bandied about by Christian scholars over the last two millennia. Rarely do we try to understand St. Joseph’s dilemma from his own viewpoint as an observant Jew living in first-century Palestine.
I also hoped to draw from St. Joseph’s dilemma lessons we can learn from St. Joseph about how to treat fellow believers who we have reason to believe have transgressed the moral law, and are now facing the possibility of religious legal consequences for their apparent moral transgressions.
Lessons from St. Joseph
So, what can we learn from St. Joseph this Advent?
No simple solutions. We live in a society and in a Church that is chockablock with laws. It is easy to assume that we merely have to look up the correct law that governs a situation and apply its prescriptions without prejudice to individuals. And, it must be noted, in many cases the disinterested application of the law serves justice. But, as the old proverb goes, the exception tests the rule. When we are dealing with human beings, and not with robots, then there are likely to be a great many exceptions that test the rule.
St. Joseph knew the Law that governed his people and that formed the basis of his own relationship with the one true God of Israel. He knew the prescriptions of the Law. He knew the woman he had committed to marrying; he had to have known her character and her personal integrity. And so he knew that those prescriptions of the Law did not fit these circumstances. He could not disregard the Law; he had to follow the Law to the best of his understanding. But neither could he expose the Blessed Virgin to legal consequences that did not appear to him to fit the situation.
Maintain discretion. When you notice that a fellow Catholic is acting in a way that seems at variance with what you know about the moral law, what is your first reaction? Do you turn a blind eye? Do you talk about it with fellow Catholics, either in person or on the Internet? Or do you think about what you know of the situation and try to come up with the best possible understanding of the situation that fits known facts?
St. Joseph did not turn a blind eye to the Blessed Virgin’s inexplicable pregnancy. He knew it presented him with a dilemma that had to be resolved. But neither did he talk about her pregnancy with anyone else. Although he would have been justified in talking to his rabbi about the situation, he knew that doing so might well place the rabbi in a position in which the rabbi might think he too would have to act against the Virgin Mary. And too, in a time before the sacramental seal of confession, there was always the danger that the rabbi might be indiscreet. It was more important to St. Joseph to maintain his own silence than to risk causing harm to the Virgin.
Protect the innocent. Perhaps all that you fear may have happened is really the truth of what has happened. That couple in your parish really are civilly remarried after a previous divorce, and thus should not be receiving Communion. And yet they do so anyway, apparently oblivious to the Church’s sacramental discipline.
As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to assume that there is someone caught up in the situation who is innocent and must be protected from having the matter become public knowledge. If not this couple you are dead certain should not be receiving Communion, then perhaps their children who are unaware of the circumstances of their parents’ marriage and should be protected from knowledge until such time as they are of an age to understand. Protecting the innocent from burdens they should not have to bear is not just the personal obligation of parents, but is also the general obligation of society as a whole.
In Judaism there is a religious principle known as pikuach nefesh (“the preservation of life”). Under this principle, and with very few exceptions, any law of the Torah can be set aside to save a human life. While pikuach nefesh is drawn from biblical sources, it would be impossible to know now whether it was a principle with which St. Joseph would have been familiar.
We do know though that St. Joseph’s overriding concern was to protect Mary, even when he did not know the paternity of her child. His bedrock concern was that he was “unwilling to put her to shame.” Certainly one reason behind that was because to put her to shame, even if she was guilty, meant to put her at risk of a death sentence. For the sake of her life, and for the sake of the innocent child she carried, he was willing to do whatever he could to protect her—even if it would mean protecting her from the legal consequences of what he might have presumed, at least for a time, to be her own actions.
Be open to surprises. Pope Francis has been talking lately about how our God is “the God of surprises.” In a homily at his daily Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae on October 13 of this year—which just happens to be the anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal—Francis offered these thoughts on God’s ability to surprise us:
"God, many times, also had surprises in store for his people": Suffice it to think of the Red Sea and of "how he saved them" from slavery in Egypt, the Pope recalled.
Despite that, however, they "did not understand that God is always new; [God] never denies himself, he never says that something he had said was a mistake, never; but he always surprises. And they did not understand and they closed themselves within that system created with much good will; and they asked" that Jesus give them "a sign," failing to understand, however, "the many signs that Jesus made" and maintaining a completely "closed" attitude.
St. Joseph had reached a conclusion about what he was required in conscience to do. He had examined the situation from all angles and settled upon the solution that seemed to meet the demands of the Law and to enable him to protect the Blessed Virgin and her unborn child. Then he went to sleep and was told in a dream that God wanted him to do what had seemed impossible according to the demands of the Law.
St. Joseph was to accept the Virgin as his wife and to accept her child as his own. That he was told to name the child was no empty honor or pat on the head to St. Joseph for a job well done. It was a directive to make God’s Son his own son, in every sense excepting the strictly biological. And St. Joseph’s response was immediate and complete obedience (Matt. 1:24–25).
Like father, like Son
In the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, we hear:
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you the potter: We are all the work of your hands.
It occurred to me that Jesus, indeed the only-begotten Son of his Father in heaven, was also the firstborn son of St. Joseph, the son of David. That father–son relationship with St. Joseph shaped Jesus as surely as our own relationship with our human fathers shapes us. In Jesus’ case, I think we can see that paternal shaping from St. Joseph at work in one of the best-loved stories of the mercy of Christ in the Gospels.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and, placing her in the midst, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?"
This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (John 8:3–11).