“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” —Matthew 1:18
o where did you meet your significant other? Match.com? Ok Cupid? My friend Sheila is married to a guy named Randy. Randy is 6’8” and played in the NBA with the Sixers for a couple of years. The first time my wife saw Randy, she said, “Wow!” I asked Sheila where she’d met Randy. Sheila said, “I walked into a bar in Greenwich Village and saw him standing at the bar, and I turned to the friend I was with and said, ‘I’m going to marry that man.’ She laughed at me, but I saw my future.”
I met my wife in the Church Nursery; she was in the bouncy chair next to mine; it took us a while to appreciate each other.
So where did you get engaged? An elegant French restaurant where you can spend a week’s pay on dinner for two and three months’ salary for the ring? Did he get the waiter to hide the ring in the Crème Bûlée?
Was it on the porch of a romantic inn on the coast of Maine? Did he drop to one knee to plead for your eternal troth?
Was it at midnight on Christmas Eve beside a shining Yule tree? Did he hand you the smallest gift you’d ever received, a tiny box which, at a certain point in any relationship, can be only one thing?
My brother-in law can do anything, fix anything, and build anything. He is omani-competent. When he comes to my house for the weekend I have a list of repairs for him; I keep him so busy we never see him. He’s very generous, but it’s so irritating; he sets a high bar.
When he proposed to my wife’s sister, he pitched a lace tent in a secluded forest on the shores of Lake Michigan a mile’s walk from his home, and when he’d escorted his unsuspecting lover across the lonely dunes to the appointed place, she found beneath the white translucent tent a table spread with candlelight, champagne, and an elaborate dinner he’d cooked with his own unskilled masculine hands. And then he gave her a ring. Thirty years later, they are, as you might guess, still happily married.
Do you know how Joseph met Mary? It’s possible that the first time they met was at their engagement. The transaction had been brokered by their parents without their consent.
Brides and grooms didn’t fall in love till after the betrothal, and often not even then. Love was completely beside the point. It was like Game of Thrones, where marriages are for other purposes, like diplomacy or international alliance. As one Bible scholar put it, “Marriage was far too serious to be left to the [whims] of the human heart.”
By the way, this is neither here nor there, but did you know that arranged marriages are more secure than marriages based on love and mutual attraction? The divorce rate is way lower. I don’t know why. That was irrelevant, but at least it was free.
Do you know where Joseph and Mary got engaged? Well, it was in church, of course, or, to be more precise, in a synagogue. Less romantic, but more serious. It was a priest or a rabbi who pronounced the sacred words of betrothal, because, you see, in first-century Palestine, the vows of betrothal were just as serious and just as sacred as the wedding vows themselves.
Today, people change lovers as casually as they change jobs. Have a fight? Move on. No harm, no foul. Tempted by a prettier package? Go ahead. She’ll get over it. That’s not the way it was for Joseph. It was adultery Mary had been guilty of, to all appearances. He could have had her stoned to death.
It’s in the Torah—Deuteronomy 22: if an engaged woman has sex with another man in the city, you’re supposed to stone both of them; if it happens in the country, only the man will be executed. Can you guess why there’s a difference between city and countryside? If it happens in the country, it’s possible that the woman cried out in protest, but there was no one close enough to hear her. If it happens in the city, in close quarters with open windows, it’s clear that both are willing partners. The Torah can be severe, but it tried to be fair, in its own odd way.
What would you have done? Then as now, there is only one word for what Mary turned Joseph into, halfway through their engagement, at least to all appearances.
So, I hope you get the size and surprise of what Joseph did. What Joseph did when he refused to put Mary aside after this horrible news is completely against every social expectation of his culture and of his time and also absolutely out of character for him.
Matthew’s Christmas story is short and simple—exactly 200 words; you heard it; it took me less than two minutes to read it—it’s short and simple, but it is masterful in its concision and detail. “Joseph,” Matthew tells us, “Joseph was a righteous man, but unwilling to disgrace his fiancée.”
In that short phrase, Matthew has told us everything we need to know about Joseph; he is (1) “righteous”; and (2) he is “unwilling to disgrace.” Joseph is that rare combination of rectitude and mercy. He knows exactly what is right, and he also knows what to do when rectitude is violated.
He is “righteous”: perhaps he is an eldest child. There is nothing in life he fears more than disappointing his parents or his boss or his friends. He keeps kosher, he is at synagogue every Sabbath; he charges a fair price for the bookshelves he hammers together for his wealthy customers, and if something goes wrong on the job and it costs him way more than the estimate he gave you, there are no change orders; there are no overages; what he told you at the beginning is what you pay at the end.
And since the law is so clear, and since Joseph is so righteous, he has no business whatsoever consorting with this philanderer, with this cheater. He knows exactly what he has to do.
And then he has this absurd dream. “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; she has been true and she is above every reproach. Marvel not, Joseph.”
And he follows the dream. He’s a carpenter, for God’s sake; he wears a tool-belt and work boots; he makes a living with a hammer and saw; his hands are rough with callouses and his beard full of sawdust; he does not fall for the fanciful apparitions of his slumbering imagination, and he definitely won’t swallow the outrageous story of a pregnant teenager.
But take Mary as his wife is exactly what he does, violating an ancient moral code and going against every grain of his character. Garrison Keillor says, “There comes a time when you have to put your principles aside and just do the right thing.” Yes?
There is no way to exaggerate the size and surprise of what Joseph did. He is one of the quiet heroes of the Jesus story. He’s so quiet we barely notice him, right? He’s been called the “Forgotten Man of Christmas.”
Outside the nativity narratives with which Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels, Joseph is mentioned exactly three times. St. Mark, author of the earliest, oldest Gospel, doesn’t even know his name. Neither does St. Paul. They don’t even bother with him.
Did you notice that Joseph never speaks anywhere, anytime, in any of the four Gospels? He ruminates with himself—Matthew makes us privy to his inner musings—but he never speaks an audible word.
If you count Advent and Epiphany, there are 69 Christmas carols in our pew hymnals. Only two bother to mention his name.
But this is why we encounter Carpenter Joseph on the fourth Sunday of Advent once every three years: it is because he is one of those beautiful folk who will receive and shelter and love children who are not their own.
Do you know somebody like that? Are you somebody like that? Are you here and alive on this earth only because of somebody like that?
Did you see the main story in this morning’s New York Times? Front page; under the masthead, above the fold. It’s about the welcome all these refugees from Syria are being welcomed in Canada. The whole country, throwing wide its arms to receive children whose homes have been destroyed, children who are not their own. The Syrians are shocked by how kind and considerate their hosts have been.
On Wednesday I thought of Carpenter Joseph, who stood between Mary’s mewling infant and Herod’s slashing sword. December 14th is a sacred anniversary for many of us, especially those of us who were living in Connecticut four years ago, the day a psychopath whose name I will not speak marched into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a rifle and shot 20 six-year-olds. It was just up the road from my church; many of us had friends in Newtown; a couple of us knew someone who lost a child.
One teacher hid her students behind bookshelves and read to them from storybooks the whole time this awful thing was happening, because, she explained later, “If this turned out to be their last day on earth, I wanted my voice to be the last thing they heard.” These people who shelter children who are not their own are so precious to this world.
Lindy Blake told Kathy and me to read this book called Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave. Is that a great title or what–for a book or for a sermon? I thought to myself that that book can’t possibly be as good as the title, but it is. It has the most memorable Christmas pageant you will ever hear anything about and this irresistible female protagonist.
Her name is Mary North, and I can’t remember the last time I got so attached to a fictional protagonist: Homer Wells, maybe, or David Copperfield, or Atticus Finch.
Perhaps her name is Mary to evoke the virgin, and perhaps her name is North because she will be true.
Mary North is 18 years old, and she lives in London, and she volunteers to help with the war effort on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declares war on Germany. They assign her to fill in for one of the many schoolteachers who have enlisted in the military and are off to the continent.
Mary learns that before the Blitz, the authorities evacuate the animals in the London Zoo before the school children. How’s that for upended priorities?
So, the parents stay in London, and all the children board trains for the countryside, and when the refugees get off the train in these small English villages and line up in the local church or the village hall, it’s a beauty contest, right? The villagers get to choose which child they will shelter till the war is over or the danger past.
It’s like choosing sides on the playground. Who’s left at the end? Who never gets picked?
There’s Zachary; no one wants Zachary; Zachary is black. There’s George, 15 and dangerously handsome, but also simple and slow. There’s Poppy, who has Down’s Syndrome.
Thomas waits all night in one village hall, but no one wants him, so he goes to the next village, but no one wants him there either, so his parents come out to get him and bring him back to London. Thomas is a polio cripple in a wheelchair.
All of these come back to London, because the countryside will not have them. This is not legal. Children are not supposed to be in London. As far as the London authorities are concerned, these children do not exist. It is against the law to teach school in London in 1940, but Mary North, 18, takes them all in anyway and makes them her own.
Like Joseph of long ago, Mary North violates so many ancient moral codes she exasperates her mother and her lover, but these unwanted children need a guardian and Mary thinks she can help them read and add and subtract.
Something sad happens when Mary is in charge. It is not her fault, but she blames herself, and it is what she says in her own defense: Everyone brave is forgiven.
Like Carpenter Joseph, who went against the grain of his character, against his better judgement, and against the ancient moral code, because there comes a time when you have to forget your principles and just do the right thing.
The whole world held its breath while it waited for Joseph to decide: obey the law, or follow the dream. If you are ever faced with just such a choice, just remember: Everyone brave is forgiven.
Adapted from William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, in The Daily Study Bible Series (Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, first published 1956, revised 1975), vol. 1, p. 19.
Catrin Einhorn and Jodi Kantor, “Worry and Wonder as a Syrian Child Transforms,” The New York Times, December 18, 2016.
Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p. 245.