This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. – Mt. 1:18-24
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” This isn’t the story we usually think of first when asked about the birth of Jesus. Usually, what comes to mind is Mary and the angel, the stable and the manger, the shepherds and the kings. Think of the creche: in every one I’ve ever seen, Joseph has stood or knelt passively to the side or behind Mary and the baby Jesus. At his most active, he is shown simply placing a protective arm around his family. He is a silent witness. Mary gives birth, the angels sing praises, the shepherdsm do homage, the kings bring gifts. But Joseph doesn’t get a verb; he is simply there. And so it is easy to forget that were it not for Joseph’s conscience, Jesus would never have been born at all. Our faith, our Church, owes its existence to Joseph’s act of conscience.
Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew he could not be the father. The obvious conclusion would have been that Mary had committed adultery. We’ve seen in other parts of scripture what happened to women caught in adultery: they were stoned to death. This was the punishment prescribed by Joseph’s religion. It was what the religious leaders of his time would likely have called for. But Joseph made a choice to follow his conscience rather than the rules. First he thought he would simply divorce her. Without a husband or father to support her, and with a baby on the way, Mary would have been in a very difficult position. And so Joseph listened to the voice of God that told him, “Do not be afraid.”
Did the religious leaders know that Joseph was not Jesus’ father? What would they have said to Joseph if they did? Might they have scolded him for accepting Mary? Would they have called him righteous, or might they have called him disobedient, or uppity, or a bad Jew? How did Joseph’s family and friends treat him? Did he tell them the truth: that he was not the father of the baby, but that he knew in his heart that casting Mary out was wrong? Or did he keep that part of himself hidden? Many of us choose to follow our own consciences rather than the dictums of our religious leaders – and must deal with the consequences that can sometimes come from that. When we do, we’re in good company.