By now, many of us would also be somewhat familiar with the contributions of Pope St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which helped to identify the four components of God’s love – Free, Total, Faithful and Fruitful. These components of God’s love, abstract though they may be, find its concrete realisation in the spousal love of husband and wife in a marital relationship. When a husband can love his wife, or vice versa, in a free, total, faithful and fruitful manner, their marriage becomes a living sign of God’s divine love. Enter St Joseph.
St Joseph, in his love for Mary, truly loved like God loves. Not much is said about St Joseph in the Scriptures. Yet, from the little that is said, much can be gleaned from his example, especially with regards to the kind of spousal love that all married couples can aspire towards. This is especially true from the perspective of what it means to love freely.
In Matthew’s account of the Gospel, we are told that St Joseph, having found out about Mary’s pregnancy, was planning to divorce her informally. However, due to an intervention by an angel who appeared in his dream, he proceeded with the marriage. I believe most of us are familiar with this story and perhaps that has led us to take for granted the significance of St Joseph’s decision.
How many of us would be able to do what St Joseph did in that moment, to change our minds due to a dream? Remember, we are told that St Joseph “had made up his mind to [divorce Mary]” (Matt 1:20). His mind was set. Yet, because of a dream, in which the contents were somewhat incredible and maybe even unbelievable and incomprehensible, St Joseph made the choice to take a pregnant Mary home. In making that choice, St Joseph exercised great courage and faith, something most biblical commentators have noted. However, St Joseph also exercised his freedom in a powerful way that many of us can learn from.
Choosing Freely to Enter into Love
One’s personal freedom is an empty freedom unless it is utilised, in other words, unless a choice is made. We see this in St Joseph on two counts. First, he was under no obligation to make the choice he eventually made. Yes, the angel did appear to him in his dream, and yes, the angel did give him specific instructions. But, as many of us can attest to, God does not demand obedience from us. He wishes it, but He will not compel us to it. All of us have experienced times when we perhaps went against the will of God – and God allowed it. St Joseph could have kept to his initial decision, but he did not. We are told in Matt 1:24 that “when Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do” (italics mine). It was St Joseph’s agency and it was his decision to do something. And that something was to choose to do what God asked of him. In choosing so, St Joseph becomes the model for all of us, especially those who are discerning the call to marriage.
In a way, St Joseph’s choice, freely made, proved to be a powerful reflection of Christ’s choice – and by extension, God’s choice – in the plan of salvation. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced a crucial crossroads, and He chose crucifixion, He chose to follow His heavenly Father’s plan. In St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we are told that Jesus “did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave…even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-7) By freely choosing to accept death through crucifixion, Jesus united himself with sinful humanity.
This leads to the second point: freedom is not for freedom’s sake, but rather, the gift of freedom is for love. One’s freedom is brought to its highest fulfilment when one chooses to love. It is important here to note that St Joseph’s original decision to divorce Mary informally was done out of love. He wanted to spare her publicity and the possible negative ramifications that a young Jewish woman who got pregnant out of wedlock would have to face. To him at that point in time, it was the most loving thing to do – until God revealed to him a more loving path. It was at this point that St Joseph utilised his freedom in making a choice that was loving – both towards Mary and towards God. No love is complete without sacrifice. From the moment he made the decision to take a pregnant Mary home, St Joseph gave his life to care for both Mary and Jesus, and also to participate in God’s salvific plan. There is a certain selflessness and nobility in St Joseph’s choice – in freedom, he chose love. In loving, he gave all he had to bring to fruition the best possible outcome for Mary and Jesus, and indeed, all humanity.
Loving Acceptance of Another’s Free Choice
Finally, St Joseph’s choice to enter into marriage with a pregnant Mary must be seen in the context of Mary’s own choice to say yes to the Holy Spirit. With Mary’s fiat, St Joseph was left with two options: either to embrace Mary’s choice with his own life, or to reject Mary’s yes by turning Mary away from his life. I suppose, if presented with such a choice, many of us might be tempted to take the second option. Thankfully for you and me, and for all humanity, St Joseph picked the first option. He chose to lovingly allow Mary to exercise her freedom and to accept the consequence of Mary’s free choice. Instead of imposing his will on the marriage, St Joseph practiced a profound sense of unconditional love and hospitality, by welcoming Mary into his life.
It is in this same light that we too should understand Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Christ died for us, regardless of the choices you and I have made in our lives. In doing so, He accepted that we may not choose Him, that we may choose to turn against Him and to crucify Him. Out of love for all humanity, He went to the cross bearing the risk of rejection while at the same time, embracing all humanity.
The example of St Joseph thus invites all of those who are discerning marriage to consider:
- Am I entering freely into marriage with my future spouse? Am I making a conscious and intentional decision to enter into a loving relationship with my future spouse?
- Am I prepared to lay down my life for my future spouse, for his or her wellbeing and growth?
- Am I prepared to accept my future spouse as who he or she is? Am I prepared to accept whatever choices that he or she has made or will make? Am I willing to take the risk that those choices may end up hurting me?