1:20. While he was thinking on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to receive Mary as your wife, for the child in her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Our previous reflection has led us to the heart of the decision facing Joseph: it concerns the transition from being a just man of the Old Covenant to being a just man of the New Covenant. There is a continuity between the two, but also a discontinuity, a step that can only be taken by grace, by God’s own activity. Saint Paul understood and expressed this well when he wrote: “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:21-27). And further: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (Gal 4:4-7).
Joseph faces precisely this transition, standing before the utter newness of God’s activity in the Virgin Mary, who has been entrusted into his care. Where he stands now, on the basis of his own righteousness, his own ability and strength and justice, he is not capable of adequately sheltering her and the mystery alive in her. No, it is too great, too beautiful, too brilliant for him. To step into the fullness that God intends for him, he must allow himself to be expanded, dilated, to be the custodian of a mystery that surpasses him, to orbit, encircle, and protect the One, indeed, who encircles and upholds the entire universe.
Fidelity to the God of the universe who has chosen to make his dwelling in Israel, who has chosen them from all peoples on the face of the earth to be his own, now reaches its fullest realization: the law finds its fulfillment in God’s own definitive marriage with his people in Jesus Christ. And Joseph experiences in his own person this transition from the betrothal of the Old Testament to the definitive marriage of the New Testament. He experiences the transition from the justice of the law to the “righteousness through faith” (cf. Rom 1:17).
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For Joseph in fact cannot make this transition on his own; God must intervene and carry him where he himself cannot go, in the process eliciting and liberating Joseph’s own freedom in the fullest measure, Joseph’s own docile acceptance and courageous cooperation. And so: “While he was thinking on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to receive Mary as your wife, for the child in her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit’ ” (Mt 1:20).
“Do not be afraid!” This is the cry at the heart of the Gospel. This is the cry voiced so many times by Jesus Christ himself throughout his life, and spoken by his Spirit, throughout time, into the heart of each one of us. We see that Joseph was indeed acting out of fear, hesitating before the mystery entrusted to him, and intending to turn away from it. But God does not wish it, and directly intervenes through the angel. “Do not be afraid!” he says. “It is I myself who am acting here, in the conception of Mary, and in choosing you—Joseph—to be the custodian of her mystery and of the child alive within her, this child who is my own Son, the Messiah and Savior for which you have all been waiting.” Yes, these words indicate something precious and profound: God himself has chosen Joseph to be the one to care for the mother and the child. And it is on this choice, and the bestowal of grace that it bears, that Joseph can place his trust, and find the courage to walk.
In other words, what is revealed to Joseph is the mystery of entrustment. God has entrusted into the orbit of Joseph’s love the most sacred of his mysteries, his virgin mother-bride, and also his very Son, incarnate as a child. But in receiving this entrustment, Joseph is invited to entrust himself to God anew, and more deeply, so as to walk in faith-filled surrender into the mystery that is at work in him and around him. In a word, receiving entrustment calls for the deeper entrustment of oneself to God; only the latter entrustment has the space to adequately receive and shelter the former. But what more can we say about this entrustment? Indeed, John Paul II has some phenomenal words on the subject, which I have quoted numerous times in other writings, but which it is necessary to revisit here.
Can one man say to another, “God has given you to me”? As a young priest, I once heard my spiritual director say to me: “Perhaps God wills to give that person to you.” These were words of encouragement, urging me to trust God and accept the gift one person becomes for another. I suspect it didn’t immediately dawn on me that these words also hide a profound truth about God, man, and the world. The world, the very world in which we live, the human world…is the setting of an ongoing exchange of gifts—gifts given and received in many different ways. People live not only alongside one another, but also in manifold relationships. They live for each other; relating to one another, they are brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, friends, teachers, students. . . . It may seem that there is nothing extraordinary in this; it is just the normal pattern of human life. In certain places, this pattern intensifies, and it is there, at those points of “intensification,” that this gift of one person for another becomes most real. When two people join with one another, not only do they give themselves to each other, but God also gives them to one another. In this, God’s creative plan is enacted. (A Meditation on Givenness, n. 1)
Entrustment is the “gifting” of one person to another, which elicits the reciprocal gift in response. It is rooted in the loving intentions of God for two persons, and manifested according to his unique plan, with all the specific contours that the persons, through mutual discernent, discover that he wills for them and for their communion in him. This is exactly the process in which Joseph and Mary are now engaged. How are we to live this gift of mutual entrustment that God intends for us, both in regard to one another and to the child conceived in Mary’s womb? The angel’s message to Joseph marks out the way, drawing beyond fear into a full acceptance of this entrustment and all that it entails, into a full sharing of life in virginal-marital communion, into the sacred space of home in which the incarnate Jesus shall grow and flourish as man, and indeed in which the Trinity’s love shall be reflected and manifested more than any other place in history. John Paul speaks of this, too, and expands it to be a unique word of invitation to each one of us, to every man who lives. We are all invited to open our hearts to this mystery of entrustment, and to be ready to receive and care for those persons entrusted to us, just as Mary and Jesus were entrusted into the care of Joseph:
I think that every man, whatever his station in life or his life’s vocation, must at some point hear those words which Joseph of Nazareth once heard: “Do not be afraid to take Mary to yourself” (Mt 1:20). “Do not be afraid to take” means do everything to recognize that gift which she is for you. Fear only one thing: that you try to appropriate that gift. That is what you should fear. As long as she remains a gift from God himself to you, you can safely rejoice in all that she is as that gift. What is more, you ought even to do everything you can to recognize that gift, to show her how unique a treasure she is. Every man is unique. Uniqueness is not a limitation, but a window into the depths. Perhaps God wills that it be you who is the one who tells her of her inestimable worth and special beauty. If that is the case, do not be afraid of your predilection. Loving predilection is, or at least can be, participation in that eternal predilection which God had in man whom he had created. If you have grounds to fear that your predilection might become a destructive force, don’t fear it in a prejudicial way. The fruits themselves will show whether your predilection is for the good.
It suffices to look at all the women who appear with Christ, starting with Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman, then the sisters of Lazarus, and culminating with the Most Holy Virgin, who was blessed among all women (cf. Lk 1:42). You must never be prejudiced about the meaning of God’s gift. Just pray in all humility that you may know how to be your sister’s keeper, so that within the orbit of your manhood she might find her way to her vocation and sanctity… Acknowledging this, the Church repeats after the Song of Songs: “Behold how beautiful you are, my beloved.” (Ibid., n. 5)
This beautiful entrustment is always reciprocal, not necessarily in the sense that we are equally cared for by the person for whom we care (as there are as many different nuances and degrees of reciprocity as there are relationships, though all love as it grows in maturity grows in reciprocity and mutual care), but in the sense that receiving the entrustment of another summons forth in us a deeper need to entrust ourselves to another. Having received Mary and Jesus entrusted to him, Joseph found the need to entrust himself still more totally and radically to God, so as to be the custodian of the mysteries of God. Indeed Joseph, in receiving Mary entrusted to him, also entrusted himself to her; and both together, man and woman, entrusted themselves to God. This is the true and full reciprocity of human intimacy reflecting and sharing in the intimacy of the Trinity. John Paul concludes his reflection precisely with this: with the need for us to entrust ourselves to Mary herself, and through her to God, that we may truly learn the meaning of entrustment, of love, and may live it with complete chastity and transparency of heart. His words are beautiful and elicit deep pondering:
I was aware that my vocation to the priesthood would put many people in my path, and that God would entrust each one of them in some special way to me: giving them to me and tasking me with them. It was then that the great need of Marian entrustment was born within me—that need which is encapsulated in the call: Totus Tuus. These words, first and foremost, are not so much a declaration as a plea that I do not succumb to any [disordered] desire, however subtly camouflaged. They are a prayer that I remain pure, and thus transparent to God and to men. I pray that my vision, hearing, and intellect remain pure. Totus Tuus: they all should be at the service of revealing the beauty God has given to man.
I recall a quote from Norwid’s poem, “Chopin’s Piano”:
I was with you in those penultimate days
of uncomprehended threads
Complete as a myth,
Pale as dawn,
When life’s end whispered to its beginning:
I will not play recklessly with you, no!
I will only hold you up!
I will not play recklessly . . . not tousle . . . not ruin . . . not belittle . . . but raise up, praise, magnify . . . Totus Tuus. All yours. Yes. We must ourselves be a total gift, a disinterested, sincere gift in order to recognize, in every man, the gift that he is, and to thank the Giver for the gift of the human person. (Ibid., n. 5)
To receive entrustment we must be entrusted. Joseph, to be the custodian of the mystery entrusted to him, needed to be so surrendered to God as to be possessed by his mystery and at its service. So too a priest, to be the custodian of God’s mysteries in the sacraments, in the word, and in the hearts of God’s children, feels the deep need to belong ever more totally to God, so as to be possessed and permeated by him, and to be transparent to his light. For every one of us this is so. The high point of love does not consist in any particular act or any particular words, but precisely in the surrender of the heart, in entrustment, first of all to God beyond all things, in the virginal faith of the heart, and then, in God and with God, to all who are entrusted to us and placed within the orbit of our love. In order to receive entrustment, we need to be entrusted first, ourselves, to another. In order to love generously and in mature donation of self, we must first repose in gratuitous intimacy and peaceful security in the embrace of God. Only from this space can we find the freedom to authentically open our being as a sheltering space for others, as a home for vulnerable hearts, and to truly be a gift, a eucharist, to them and for them in the likeness of the Eucharistic and Paschal Christ.