The nail bent over under Joseph's hammer. He growled in anger. "She should know better!" He swung the hammer even harder but this time it glanced off the nail and bounced squarely off of his thumb.
He had visited the temple yesterday, prayed for wisdom, and offered doves for having touched Mary's uncleanliness. In just the last month he also had to sacrifice at the temple because his mother had touched a dead body, and then again when his brother had a rash. And now he had to go again, to do something far harder. He cursed, "People just don't love the law anymore!"
He walked in front of her as they entered the temple grounds. He was unable to look her. "The law is all we have left of the Lord with us, Mary!"
"Please, Joseph. I have stayed pure," she cried quietly. "I'm not lying."
"I wish I could believe you." He gestured at her stomach. "I must love God's law more than I love you. I'm so sorry." His eyes were deeply troubled. "Sit here." He pointed to a bench.
He approached the priest, Benjamin. He had always thought Benjamin was too nice to be a good priest but he had grown up with him. Joseph pulled him to the side. "Benjamin, can we please keep what I'm about to tell you a private matter?"
Benjamin nodded. He looked down at the recent wound on Joseph's thumb and then into his face. "You look. . . weary, Joseph."
"The law has no mercy on the weary," Joseph said looking down, agonizing. "I must divorce her."
"Why?!" Benjamin asked, struck with disappointment and compassion.
The priest glanced at young Mary and shook his head. "Are you sure?"
She admits to be with child.
"Still, is there no other way. Just marry her quickly, perhaps?"
"You tell me? Will not the Lord see?"
Benjamin took a couple deep and shaky breaths, and looked toward the other priests. He shook his head and after a long moment he turned and said, "I will get the bill of divorce."
Joseph walked over to Mary, sat down, and forced himself to take her hand.
It seemed to be the lifeline she needed at that moment. "You can rest now, Joseph." Mary said tenderly. "I know you carry so much. And you are trying to do what's right."
He squeezed her hand. She was such a good woman. He didn't understand how she'd let this happen.
A moment later his head slumped against Mary in sleep. She held it tenderly.
Joseph raised his head. But the temple was radiant and empty, save for one man in a long, white robe standing before him.
"Joseph, I am Gabriel. I bring a message from the Lord most high."
Joseph fell down before him, scared for his life. "Take my life quickly; you have found me impure!"
Joseph felt a warm hand on his forehead, lifting slightly. Joseph stood, trembling, still averting his gaze.
"Stay with her, Joseph. Raise the child."
Joseph looked up, and hesitated. He nodded but then mumbled. "But you are asking me to break God's law."
"This baby is the law, but now in bones and flesh." The angel's smile came from an ancient secret. "And he desires mercy, not sacrifice."
That old scripture from Hosea rang in Joseph's head. Hosea was the one who was instructed to marry a prostitute. Was he to do the same?
"Joseph, her child is not from a man. Her child is the son of God, in bodily form. The future king and messiah. Yes, the ancient I Am. And God's law came from this very person in her womb."
"But. . ." His face was fighting to believe, though he still could not look at the angel fully.
The angel took Joseph's chin and lifted his eyes to his. Warmth flowed through Joseph's body from his touch. "We have seen how dearly you have loved the law. Your reward is to learn to love this baby. And then let the law love you."
Joseph breathed in and as he breathed out, heavy burdens of duty seemed to crack and tumble off of him. He closed his eyes.
"Love her and most of all, love her child, Joseph."
He was suddenly aware of Mary's soft hand on his ear. He opened his eyes and lifted his head. He looked at her. She looked at him, her eyes flooding with tears. Her hope was losing against despair.
He took her head and said, as seriously as anything he had ever said to anyone, "Until now I have loved God's law above all else. But from this day forward I will love you and your child with mercy, not sacrifice . . . for the law has come to love us."
In what ways have you pictured God as more like a set of rules than a person?
Has trying to follow those rules ever prevented you from loving someone well? Has it ever prevented you from caring for yourself well?
Remember that God is a person who loves before he is a set of rules. The rules are his instructions to help us live a life of growth, faith, humility, and one that is part of his bigger plan. They are also opportunities to show us he forgives.