Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Again this year someone has pointed out to me that human history would be different if the Blessed Virgin Mary had made a different choice. “What if…?” a parishioner queried of me with some measure of hesitation. “What if Mary had said `No!’ to the invitation to become the mother of the Savior? Or, worse, what if she had chosen to have an abortion?”
The question, obviously, is more rhetorical than a challenging point to argue. Mary did say “Yes” and her choice has become the channel of our salvation. The birth of Christ Jesus is history, and history is now what it is. Her decision has changed us. A decision to abort, obviously, would have aborted more than a child. In fact, every decision to abort changes human history significantly. Most sadly, it always makes history different.
The “What if?” question can be asked of another person in the traditional Christmas scene. Mary of Nazareth is not the only person in that glorious moment in human history who faced a moment of decision. Joseph, her husband, faced his own moral dilemma. In his day couples became engaged not out of a blossoming affection for one another, but usually as the result of the handiwork of the village matchmaker. They honestly may not even have known one another to any extent. History was already planned for them.
Even though Joseph and Mary may not have known one another – definitely not in the sexual sense, Scripture tells us – they likely still had their dreams as young adults about marriage and the home they would one day create. The news of Mary’s pregnancy must have stunned Joseph. And by a “Holy Spirit”?! His was a time of decision. An upright man was this future husband, we are told; a law-abiding citizen. Following the law of Moses, Joseph had every right to have the woman put to death. And nary a person would have criticized him for doing so; in fact, most of his contemporaries, both male and female, readily would have affirmed such a move. It would have been the “right thing” to do, and he would have saved face. Joseph’s decision not to have her killed also changed human history.
What if...? What if he had made a different – even legal – choice? Joseph’s goodness – the kind of fundamental goodness that would make him a truly committed husband – summoned him to a deeper level of decision-making. He decided to settle the matter out of court, as it were. Setting aside the death sentence, he chose to set Mary aside quietly. She would go her way, and he his. Yes, he would have to take his lumps from the village nags and his macho buddies, but the life of this woman was far more important. The letter of the law need not rule.
Given the nature of marriage in the Middle East, then as now, a deep, affectionate love for Mary likely did not play a key role in his decision, but a faithfulness to the dictate of conscience which urged him to do good and remain committed to it. This decision left Joseph still in control of the situation. And his life-respecting choice was an admirable one by our Christian standards. Quiet divorce was his solution to a tacky mess.
The situation of this unwanted and unexpected pregnancy deeply troubled Joseph. It would any man. Its complexity forced him to search into parts of his being probably never yet touched by his reflection. Scripture says he was deeply disturbed. Now that’s an understatement! Even as he made his choice for divorce, his heart called him to walk to an even deeper grace in his life. The dream Scripture pictures him as having is not the subconscious medium of God’s message-giving, where Joseph becomes a mere pawn of divine intervention. Dreams are often the playing field of life’s deep and serious struggles where often truer, more honest aspects of our soul are permitted free play. In his dream Joseph touches the reality that his life and his choices are not entirely his own.
God’s protecting and caring presence has an important role to play. Joseph discovers in a deep part of
himself the realization that his difficult decision could well be placed in the hands of God. “Make the choice for
marriage,” his heart tells him; God will provide. Let a respect for persons become a genuine commitment to them
which is made possible by the grace of God. Joseph rises from sleep and welcomes Mary into his home as his wife.
Joseph’s entry into marriage is with full, open heart, recognizing that there is something more in this bond than legal arrangement or cultural acceptability. His marriage is born of deep personal commitment – the true gift of himself. His choice made a difference. The Son of Mary – the Son of God – is to be born and nurtured in a network of loving relationships. The marriage between Joseph and Mary was not a perfect one by normal cultural standards. The focus of their “preparation” was not the color of mints at their reception, but the real, hard challenge of self-giving. Both had to struggle with the question of openness to what was not Kodak-perfect, but was truly born of the grace of God. The sugar-plum dances of the ideal marriage situation had to give way to the realities of their marriage.
This couple had terrible decisions to make. We all have benefited from their “yes.” History is now what it is. They model for us the self-gift which lies at the heart of true marriage and gives us the courage to let our difficult decisions be rooted in the way of God. What if... What if our decision in marriage – or life in general, for that matter – were made with equal openness?
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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