Did Mary and Joseph love each other? I mean, we say that they both loved God. But did they love each other? And what was this love? What kind of love?
The Christmas story from Matthew doesn’t explicitly describe the dimension of love in their relationship.
Eileen O’Hea relates an example from her life about what the New Testament describes as—from the Greek— “agape” love. And this love was expressed by her dying mother. O’Hea writes:
“An example of agape love happened to me as I sat beside my mother’s bed a day before she died. An ambulance siren rang through the city streets close to our home. It somehow penetrated the thick coma-like sleep that enveloped my mother. Her eyes opened and dreamily met mine for the first time in many hours. She then looked at me and asked, “Is daddy alright?” “Yes,” I replied, “he’s fine; he’s in the living room.” My mother, assured that the one she loved was safe from harm, slipped back into the sleep she would not awaken from again.”
The kind of love that propels someone into a deeper, more fulfilling life with another is what I think the angel reminds Joseph of in the dream he has.
Notice the angel’s first words to Joseph. The angel says his name. Before anything else is said, saying someone’s name when you address them is already an act of love for the person. Saying their name calls them to pay attention in return, grounding them in the moment of grace and opening their hearts to listen to and receive the other. The angel’s words to Joseph communicate love.
Joseph had to be called back to his love for Mary. We say it was Joseph’s love of God that made him obedient. Let’s assume Mary told Joseph about the angel Gabriel’s news that she will bear the Son of God. So, when the angel then confirms this news in Joseph’s dream, Joseph is called to obey out of his love of God, the God who Mary now carries in her body. Joseph’s love for Mary, herself, is the way he chooses to love God in that moment of decision. For Joseph, love of God indeed means loving Mary.
This truth is echoed later in the New Testament, specifically the commandment to love one another. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” In other words, you cannot love God without loving someone on earth.
But there’s so much that blocks us from practising this true, “agape” love in life, isn’t there? What blocks this love?
Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary was an act of fear. After saying his name, the angel’s very next words to Joseph are, “Do not be afraid” – the most repeated instruction in the whole bible. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The bible has something to say about being afraid, and how fear relates to love. In scripture, fear and love are at opposite ends of a spectrum:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because [God] first loved us.
When talking about love, that’s where we need to begin. With God’s love for us. And how God loves us. And we are given a gift in the Holy Meal. The sacrament of the table is first and foremost God’s gift of grace, God’s gift of love for us and the world.
Holy Communion is a meal we share with others. This is an important realization. Because while the Communion is “given for you”, personally, it is also given for everyone else. Communion is not just ‘ours’, individually. It connects us to the whole of creation. As national bishop Susan Johnson writes:
“The bread and wine are symbols of all life joining in praise of God … The earth, the sea, and all their creatures join in this praise. The meal is universal … [and] includes all our relations … [The Communion] connects us to angels, and to the saints who have gone before us. The meal makes no distinction between people. God invites all to come and share in this mystery. All receive the same bread and wine. All are equals … before the grace of God.”
Love opens our hearts. In Communion, each of us is called by name to receive the grace of God. In forgiveness we accept love despite our failures and weaknesses.
We cannot do it alone. We cannot love perfectly. Even though we are called to love others as God would love—infinitely, graciously, extravagantly—it’s not easy to do this especially when we are suffering, grieving, and hurting.
Joseph and Mary had each other. Their love for each other and God helped them take risks of faith together, trusting in God’s love always. We are not alone on this journey. Love is not a solitary act. We don’t love others on our own accord. It’s not our love to keep for ourselves alone or dispense by ourselves alone.
Rather, we love with God. Loving with God means the love we give is an expression of the heart of God, who is Emmanuel—God with us. The love God gives is not based on the merit of the beloved, nor the correctness of the beloved’s beliefs. But rather the love we share is part of the flow of God’s ongoing love for us and all of creation.
We join God’s love and participate in God’s loving. Like stepping into a river which flows continually. We may start at the river’s edge, gingerly testing the waters. Our first move into the river may be tentative. We may only go in a little way, and quickly jump out. We may even feel at times that we are not making any progress at all going deeper.
But regardless of how we may feel, and in whatever hurting circumstance we may find ourselves, there is something else going on that is deeper, and bigger, than what we may first perceive—as Joseph and Mary both learned in their experience. The story wasn’t just about them.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that “you cannot step into the same river twice,” meaning every act, however small, however tentative, bears an essential newness. Divine love is not a river of stagnant water but a fountain fullness of overflowing love, love that is forever awakening to new life. Whether we are aware of it or not each time we dip into the river, the love of God-with-us strengthens a deeper, more lasting flow and truth within us and the world around us.
In the shadows of our lives this Christmas, may our loving shine forth brightly, in Jesus’ name.
 Matthew 1:18-25
 Eileen O’Hea, “Contemplation and Love” Rain for the Sea (London: The World Community for Christian Meditation, Meditatio Talk Series A, 2009)
 1 John 4:20-21; Matthew 7:12
 1 John 4:18-19
 Donald W. Johnson & Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2021), p.174.
 Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to do About It (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021), 116–117.
 Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), 74, 76–77, 83-84.