Remembering the Fortitude of Mary and Joseph at Christmas
~ by Fr. Christopher Marchand ~
It is possible [for a man] to be genuinely brave only . . . when, with a clear view of the real situation facing him, he cannot help being afraid, and, indeed, with good reason. If in this supreme test, in face of which the braggart falls silent and every heroic gesture is paralyzed, a man walks straight up to the cause of his fear and is not deterred from doing that which is good; if, moreover, he does so for the sake of good—which ultimately means for the sake of being taken for a coward—this man, and he alone, is truly brave. —The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance / Josef Pieper
A betrothed young woman finds herself pregnant under extraordinary circumstances.
A betrothed young man’s bride-to-be may not be the honorable woman he was expecting.
There are visitations from angels, proclaiming to this young man and woman a son would be born to them, a Savior to their people.
Enduring the unexpected pregnancy, the woman journeys to her husband’s ancestral home as she is about to give birth.
Angels, shepherds, and wise men from the east all come and pay homage to their son, declaring him the Christ.
A mad, jealous king, hearing of their son’s birth, then orders the death of all male children in the City of David where they are staying, and an angel warns them in a dream to take flight for safety to Egypt.
If it were you, how might you treasure all these things in your heart and proceed forward, parenting this child God has placed in your life? Can you imagine the fortitude it took Mary and Joseph to walk through each one of these harrowing steps of obedient faith?
From our vantage point we naturally and rightly see the events of Christmas as a foregone conclusion: Mary and Joseph obeyed and heeded God’s call and God’s Son was born into the world. Jesus grew, entered his earthly ministry, and walked the way of the cross. But what we forget is the role human agency played in this sequence of events, specifically that Mary and Joseph could have said no.
Joseph Pieper, in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, defines fortitude as the “readiness” one has “to die” because he knows what just and prudent cause to devote his life to. A person with fortitude is someone who understands what is truly important in life and will thereby endure all manner of hardships to remain faithful to that devotion. Thus we might say that having fortitude is also a decision of what one is willing to live for at any cost, and not only to die for. Mary, in being called to carry Jesus in her womb and birth him into the world, and Joseph, in choosing to remain married to her, were compelled to quickly decide whether or not they were to embrace a fortitudinous life for themselves.
When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, she could not comprehend the fullness of his message, how she could even conceive a child in the first place, nor all that her child would one day grow to endure and accomplish. But in one simple act of obedience, one declaration of her growing fortitude, Mary joyously embraced the glorious unknown of her new calling: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38 ESV) Likewise Joseph, not wanting to bring shame on Mary, was on the cusp of quietly divorcing her when he received his own visitation from an angel. Knowing that he and his family might face social scrutiny the rest of their days, knowing they might always get those sideways, scornful looks as they passed people by, Joseph nonetheless changed course and welcomed Mary as his wife and this coming son who “will save people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21 ESV) In saying “yes” they died to whatever they conceived as the direction their lives should take and instead embraced the glorious risk of an unknown future in God’s calling.
I think it is safe to say neither you nor I will ever receive the exact same calling as Mary and Joseph, namely to carry, birth, and then parent the Son of the Living God. And yet by looking at them we see that in order to fulfill God’s call on each of our lives we must be willing to step into and then endure difficulty, discomfort, confusion, and all manner of risks. This year, as we enter into the Christmas season, perhaps even on Holy Family Sunday, the day after Christmas, may we remember the fortitude of Mary and Joseph as they brought Jesus into the world and faithfully served the work of the Gospel as his parents. Their obedience was first tested through a concentrated set of high-stress situations and encounters, but afterward it morphed into the slow creep of the mundanities of family life. Through Mary and Joseph we see that sometimes people’s fortitude is marked not through a single moment of bravery but instead through faithful endurance spread out over many years. We may not have their specific calling, but surely the calling of every parent is to commit to our children over the long haul, seeing them through their journey into adulthood when they begin to accept a calling for their own lives.
Mary and Joseph did not understand all they were being called to do and yet they said “yes,” knowing God would be faithful to give them the strength they needed as they walked step by step. May we find encouragement this Christmas season, as we see ourselves reflected in them and we ourselves learn how to become resilient people of great fortitude.