St Joseph was a just man, upright. In the Jerusalem Bible translation he is said to be 'a man of honour.' And so when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, he decided to do the right thing. To protect his good name, he would divorce her, and to protect her name, he would do so quietly, without making a fuss. Reputations mattered to him.
But obedience to God's messenger asked of him that he jeopardize what is most dear to him, his honour. He must take this woman who is pregnant, and not by him, into his home and raise her child. And ever since, Joseph has been open to mockery, from the medieval mystery plays to William Blake until James Joyce. He looks, to the sceptical, just what he would most have hated, a cuckold, often portrayed as an elderly man who has been made to look a fool.
Yet in embracing this destiny he is most closely identified with the son entrusted to him, who will die a shameful death on a cross, the most dishonourable fate imaginable. He is shown to be just the father needed to raise a child who is Emmanuel, God with us, close to us in our shame and folly.
So, much of this gospel text revolves around names and reputation. He is told by the angel to give Jesus his name, and so claim him as his own. He is the one, of course, who transmits to Jesus the honourable lineage of David. So Joseph is seen to be the honourable man, and most of all because he accepts to imperil his own honour and take into his care Mary and her divine son.
So, in this gospel, Joseph teaches us two ways in which we can prepare to join the company of Jesus (and I am not referring to the Jesuits!). First of all we must have care of other people's good name. For St Thomas Aquinas, a person's reputation is their most prized possession, and to destroy it is not just unjust but robbery. Even if what we say about other people is true, and they have done terrible things, it is still deeply wrong to destroy their name, unless there is some compelling necessity for the common good. We have to resist the succulent pleasure of passing on juicy gossip. The root meaning of 'gossip' is to have a spiritual relationship with someone, to be in God their sibling. And that relationship should mean that one does not gossip about them!
Every day the media casually destroy people's reputation, by accusation or insinuation. Celebrities are puffed up and then shot down. Whole classes of people are rubbished. President Sarkozy, as Minister of the Interior, dismissed the rioters in the French suburbs as 'racaille', 'scum.' But Jesus took as his first companions those whose who had dirty reputations, prostitutes and tax collectors.
Do we cherish the good name of those whom others consider scum? Can we learn to shut our mouths and never say a word that will destroy the good name of another child of God, unless justice requires that we do so?
Secondly we must dare to put our own good name in jeopardy, if needs must be. We must take the risk, like Joseph, of being misunderstood, mocked and made the butt of jokes. St Teresa of Avila's Spain was obsessed with honour. People were deeply sensitive to any slur on their good name. For Teresa this was rubbish, 'children building houses of straw.' The priests who worked with her were distressed to find themselves accused of awful things, but Teresa just laughed, because all that matters is how we are seen by God.
Cardinal Danielou died on the staircase of a seedy block of flats, on his way to visit a prostitute. The newspapers were filled with nasty innuendo, but his friends knew that he was a deeply pastoral man, who followed the way of his Lord and was not afraid to reach out to the despised, whatever people might say.
And so let Joseph teach us how to welcome God's son into our lives this Christmas, caring for everyone's reputation, and yet, if necessary, being unafraid to lose our own.