After walking for four days, my father reached the beach near Dunkirk in 1940. Finally he was evacuated, but as he was helped onto a motor boat, they were attacked by a Messerschmitt plane, and the boat took off, dragging him with it. He couldn't swim and was under the water but someone reached out and managed to pull him on board. Later, on board a destroyer, he narrowly avoided being killed by a bomb which left around thirty people dead. In later life, he worried that the man who had saved his life on the motor boat, might have been one of the thirty who had been killed.
I am alive because of that one man who saved my father's life, as are his grandchildren, and great grandchild.
Every one of us comes at the end of a long chain of lives, lives which could have ended at any time. We rarely know much about the links, unless we are members of the aristocracy, but there is still a chain of lives which brings us to where we are. Was St Joseph merely a link in the chain?
Matthew's account gives us what is clearly a stylised genealogy, purporting to be neatly divided into three sets of fourteen, fourteen for the Tribes of Israel, fourteen for the Kingdom of Israel, and fourteen for the Dispossessed of Israel. Not all of the links in the chain were conspicuous for their virtue. But there is one virtue shared by these ancestors, and that is the virtue of hope. They may have rejected the covenant but they never forgot that they were children of Abraham and therefore children of the promise. That is the significance of the last group of fourteen. They are forgotten men, just names in a list, but they themselves remembered who they were. Living in exile, or under enemy occupation they never forgot, in their obscurity, that they were children of the promise.
Joseph is not just one link in this chain, he is the culmination of this chain. All that Israel had been, wanderers, slaves, warriors, builders, worshippers yet also fratricidal murderers, adulterers, apostates and traitors, comes to its fulfilment in Joseph. The choices of Israel are made by Joseph. The fact that sin had perpetuated the line of Joseph just as much as righteousness shows that the links were not always willing links. They had been instruments of God, even in their sin. They hadn't chosen to be the ancestors of the Messiah. This was not the case with Joseph. He was the one who would have to make that choice. With Joseph faith and hope would finally find its object. That is what faith and hope are for, to find Jesus.
Perhaps it might seem that Joseph's choices didn't matter. Without the consent of Mary, the Christ would not have been born at all. But without the consent of Joseph, Jesus would not have been a son of Israel. In the Epistle to the Galatians, St Paul says 'But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.' It was through St Joseph, that Jesus came into being, (a more accurate translation than 'born') under the law. Joseph's choice was therefore a real choice and a matter of great significance. He was the just man who would lay claim to the hope of Israel. He is told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. In rejecting fear, Joseph chooses hope, because hope and fear are both attitudes to the future. A hope he would struggle to maintain against Herod, and all Jerusalem, who, when they heard of the new born king of Israel from the Magi, are troubled, which is to say, trapped between hope and fear. In the end, of course, Herod choose fear.
It can never be said, then, that all Israel rejected the coming of Jesus as the Christ. If that had been the case, then God would have raised up Israel in vain, but no work of God is ever for nothing. Joseph, son of kings and son of slaves, reached out, and the destiny of Israel was fulfilled.