"And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:4-7 ESV)
I often wonder how Joseph felt, that night with the sounds of the animals bleating and mooing around him and his wife as she gave birth to their firstborn son….if we are to believe some of the theology of the event, it is possible that he wasn't even present.
But I wonder if he, knowing that the Promised Messiah was being born, was more introspective and depressed about how this child's introduction into the world had been botched.
There was no privacy, no four walls and a door to shut the world out so that the childbirth would happen in the relative peace of privacy. No crib to lay his newborn son in….the best he could manage was a manger…where the animals ate their fodder from. Not a great beginning for the Messiah…..I wonder if Joseph had doubts of how good of a father he would be, with such beginnings. That is not the way any father would want to welcome his child into the world, especially knowing the purpose to which he was born. It wasn't his idea to have to travel to Bethlehem, the ruling government forced him to travel with a pregnant wife and he had probably drained the family's bank account to take them to the tiny little town….for I'm sure he knew that he was going to be there for a while. No place for his family at the inn, money tight and the birth happening in a stable….did Joseph have some agony about these humble beginnings of the redemption of mankind?
"Even without that much imagination, a Christian curious about Joseph can take some sturdy, basic inspiration from the carpenter who is, at a minimum, humanity's stand-in, a lunch-pail hero not born to holiness but who, by his hard-won and steadfast belief, finds a role in salvation." David Van Biema, Times article, Father & Child 2005.
Not much is said in the Bible about Joseph, the earthly father to our Savior and in the productions of Christmas throughout the Christian faith very little is said. We tend to focus on Mary or on the babe Himself. The last time Joseph is mentioned directly in the Bible is in Luke's gospel….
"Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, 'Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.' 'Why were you searching for me?' he asked. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?' But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." Luke 2:41
Even there, it wasn't Joseph by name but rather under the general description of 'his parents'. Joseph seems to have been a minor player in the story…..no speaking roles, no impactful statements and his portion of the story seems to fade into the background by the Wedding at Capernaum, the site of Jesus' first miracle. If we follow the tradition of the church, our understanding of Joseph's impact on the story of mankind's redemption would end. But, there is more to Joseph than just the canonization because of his status. Much more.
Joseph, as we can discern from the accounts, is a carpenter by trade. And most of the 'treatments' of this foster father of the Messiah don't go beyond those simple notations. As I said, Joseph is treated like a minor player in the great Christmas drama….but as we know, even the most minor players in the story of God's plan are greater than the 'speaking' roles they play. Even more so do we find the lessons that Joseph left for the fathers, husbands and men of this century for the role and example they should be for the blessings they have been given in the shape of their wives, children and role in society.
"Both for Joseph and ourselves, the marriage covenant is the root of fatherhood. Joseph's fatherhood sprung entirely out of his marriage covenant with the Virgin Mary. Christian and Jewish theologians recognize that Joseph and Mary were legally married at their betrothal. Thus, Joseph and Mary were legally bonded in the marriage covenant at the time of the annunciation." Steve Wood notes in his essay St. Joseph: The World's Greatest Father. "Joseph is much more than an "adoptive" father of Jesus. An adoptive father receives a child born outside of the marriage covenant. Jesus' conception and birth were within the marriage covenant. Thus Joseph was the father of Jesus in every way, except biologically."
In this way, Joseph imparts to us how important the function of fatherhood is and where it's foundation lies. Too often in the world today, we discount fatherhood as a necessary and vital part of society, of the family and of marriage. We make laws limiting a father's rights, malign them on tv sitcoms and marginalize their roles in the raising of the generations. We, as men, negate our importance by our infidelity or pre-marriage sexual conduct….we know that a possibility of sex is the creation of a baby, indeed, it is one of the main reasons for the experience of sex….but we figure we can simply pay some money towards the upkeep of our children and call it fatherhood with weekend visits if the covenant of marriage doesn't work out.
Joseph shows us what true masculinity is even before the marriage covenant and the birth of Christ. As Scott Engelman states, "We were, as men, built to bless with our power." Joseph, as a faithful Jew, knew that it was in his power to denounce Mary once the pregnancy with Jesus was discovered. Society would have not looked unkindly upon him for abolishing the covenant due to Mary's 'indiscretions.' But even before he was visited by the angel, he had made an honorable decision that would've had great personal cost to him…..at least in the gossip circles of his community. He decided to 'divorce' Mary quietly, so as not to bring her public disgrace. He gave up personal satisfaction at the perceived insult of Mary's pregnancy by another, seeking only to bring the covenant to an end due to its breach. Rather than seek redress in public disgrace, Joseph took the higher masculine route of 'blessing' Mary with the righteous and just use of his masculine power. Rather than address the town gossip…that obviously Mary and Joseph couldn't wait for the wedding to consummate, Joseph instead chose to be embarrassed. He knew the truth, that he was not the father and Mary, who was betrothed and legally in the society standards of the time, must have had an affair with someone else or been raped. I'm sure that the rape notion was quickly refuted by Mary and this leaves Joseph with only infidelity as the likely cause…..which gives him an avenue of justice in the culture of the time. He could publicly reject her, protecting both his character and good name. He could allow for the extreme punishment for adultery; stoning…..and if she did survive or Joseph allowed for a lesser punishment, allow society to continue to punish her throughout the rest of her life. Her family, by association, would lose their standing in the community and she would be shunned, at best, by everyone she knew. She would not have any escape from this indiscretion, no man would marry her because of the stigma of her adultery would taint his reputation no matter how long after the incident. Mary would have no escape from this rejection; no matter where she went, the very singleness of her situation would stand out as a beacon to her mistake. The fact that Joseph wanted to take care of the matter quietly, to save her from that life, speaks volumes of his masculine use of his power to bless rather than curse his betrothed.
"Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph decided that the wrong thing to do was to deigmatizo (expose, make an example of, disgrace) Mary. True, he felt he could no longer marry her due to the fact that the child was not his but he decided a quiet presentation of a certificate of divorce given to her in front of two witnesses, required by Mosaic law, would suffice. He wouldn't have to give the pregnancy as the reason, but could've chosen any number of lesser offenses that were acknowledged by the Hillel-mentored Pharisees. He would simply divorce Mary and give her as much protection as he could in the given situation.
If it were not for the angel coming to Joseph to 'set the record straight', some say we might have had a different outcome to the birth. But, such explanation leaves Joseph's established righteousness as a piece of fluff….and the incredible decision to go forward with the marriage a matter of personal fancy. More than a simple man who followed the dictates of a dream, Joseph shows his spiritual state. Upon the confirmation of Mary's incredible tale, he immediately gets up and takes Mary into his home, the consummation of the marriage covenant in the time…..he honored God by not having any 'relations' with Mary until Christ was born and then set forth the greatest example of fatherhood that we have.
He gave his heart, his name and his legacy to this child that was not his.
"... You are to give him the name Jesus" (1:21)
In the culture of the time, there was no greater thing in the birth of a child that a father had to do…..by bestowing a name upon the newly born, the father was imparting more than just a perception of what the child's purpose or character was but establishing through the naming an acknowledgment of the parentage of the child, legally and personally. He named Jesus, as commanded by the angel, and gave his heart to the child. He gave the keys to his legacy to Christ.
This is evident far beyond the naming ceremony and the perceived implications. We have further evidence that Joseph, foster father in name…earthly father in the heart of Jesus, fully accepted the fatherhood of the God-Man with all his heart. The angel commands Joseph to flee because of Herod's persecution and he picks up his family immediately and heads to the protection of Egypt. After Herod's death, still fearful of Herod's son Archelaus' brutality might harm his son, Joseph returns to the place where once he contemplated divorcing Mary….and raises his son as countless fathers have done up until the disruption of World War 1…..teaching him everything he knows; religion, family and trade. He imparts through this the legacy and reputation he has. Humble, poor and a simple working man….Joseph gives us far more in his silence than probably would have come from his lips.
It is supposed that Joseph passed on during the quiet years of Jesus' life. Maybe in the context of God's larger story, we only needed to know this about the carpenter from Galilee….that his integrity and faithful willingness to be obedient to God's direction and guidance were an essential cog in the purposes that God had for this little baby boy, born in a manger in the stables of Bethlehem.
As the Christmas celebration comes near and our communities within the Christian faith celebrate the beginning of God's plan for the redemption of mankind…..I think we should remember the impact that one righteous man, humbled and obedient to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph….had upon it all. Far beyond the moment, that have reached into the generations since with an example of true masculinity, fatherhood and marriage.
Joseph of Nazareth.