Some very close friends of mine are a happily married couple who told me one day their marriage was nothing like they had planned. They listed all the ways in which their plans had failed to materialise and I remember well how we all laughed. Then they listed the ways God had blessed them instead and we became rather serious and admitted to each other how marvellous God is. It was proof of the saying: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
St Joseph was a man of honour. Tradition tells us he was rather older than Mary at the time he decided to marry. The story goes that the elders could not decide amongst the many who put in for the hand of Mary who had lived in the Temple from an early age. Finally the elders asked God to intervene and required each of the suitors to leave their staff in the Temple overnight. In the morning, the staff of Joseph had sprouted lilies, the sign of purity. Needless to say he won the hand of the fair maiden.
The tradition also speaks to us of Mary. She had promised God from her earliest years to remain a virgin. When the Temple elders determined she should marry she put all her trust in God whom she was convinced had, nevertheless, accepted her vow.
Joseph must have praised God that he had been found worthy to become the husband of Mary. We can all imagine his gratitude.
What were his plans for the future? We don't really know. What we do know is that very soon this man bumped into the plan of God in a way he could never have foreseen.
The first thing he discovered was that Mary was pregnant and he was not the father. Oh, dear, what a calamity! It would be hard to think of worse news for a young man preparing to be married. This was definitely not in the script he had been working from. What should he do?
The options were several. The most obvious was to express his hurt and get even. She had shamed him, now he would shame her. She had wrecked his dreams, now he would wreck hers. She had pretended to be holy, he would show the world what she was really like.
Instead, Joseph decided to show the world what he was really like. He decided to divorce her informally, so she would be spared publicity. What a man! No wonder Jesus had chosen him for his father - someone who could fear God that much and treat his mother with such dignity.
The book "The City of God" written by Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda tells us that Joseph said nothing to Mary. He at first thought he must be mistaken. He watched her carefully until he was entirely certain she was with child. Even then he said nothing. He did not want to cause her embarrassment. He would just leave quietly.
And then God intervened. He sent an angel to Joseph. The angel read him another script - the one he had already read to Mary, the one that had been written from all eternity and which was vastly more wonderful than Joseph's own plans for his marriage.
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.
Joseph listened as Mary had listened and did what Mary had done. He set aside his plans for himself and submitted to God's plans for him. He did it without a murmur. He did it with total faith. He did it immediately.
When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord told him to do.
It's almost a shame, after meditating on so sublime an episode, to insinuate banal considerations for ourselves and our own lives, nevertheless, please forgive me for making just one point.
Every day I meet people who have received bad news - news about their health, their marriage, their children, their work ... occasionally I receive bad news of my own. There is just so much incomprehensible suffering in the world.
If only I can live to see my grandson. If only I can be at my daughter's wedding. If only .. if only ...
The news for Joseph was devastating, disastrous - his wife-to-be was pregnant! Things can looks so dark, so bleak, so hopelessly awful that we can imagine there is no God, or that he has forsaken us. Yet this bad news of Joseph’s turned out to be not just good news but the best news the entire universe has ever heard - the coming of the Saviour - the One who would bring us eternal life.
Our bad news is never bad news if we trust in God.
But come, let us be still! Tonight, as the conductor raises his baton and holds it motionless over the little town of Bethlehem, the orchestra of the old dispensation falls silent and centuries of rehearsal come to an end. Let us, too, be still.
Anticipation grows - the infant is to be born - the Woman is already in labour. Creation strains to hear the first sound, the first cry of its Redeemer. The moment is joyful, inexpressibly joyful, and full of excitement. He is nearly here - Emmanuel, God with us!