The small nativity set that sits on the piano in our home was purchased at Marshall Field’s over 35 years ago. We still store it in the original box that has a plastic insert with hollowed out shapes that fits the form of each person, ox, sheep, angel, the manger and the small stable. It came with three shepherd types with beards – any one of which a likely candidate for the person of Joseph. Early on, we settled on the one with a blue robe since Mary is also outfitted in a blue and red robe. But there is no way to be sure that figure really is Joseph. I look at the nativity scene arranged in the little stable with the wisps of straw on the floor and wonder if we have the right man as the father of Jesus.
Of course, that was Joseph’s question: who was the father?
Only one of the gospel accounts tells Joseph’s story. Otherwise he tends to get lost among the other familiar nativity players. Oh, he’s mentioned briefly in Luke’s story and in passing in the gospel of John. But for the most part, Joseph is a bit player in the drama except in Matthew’s story.
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is very spare. It’s like the Joe Friday version, “Just the facts, ma’am.” It is never the one you hear read at Christmas Eve services with the lights down low and the candles giving off a soft glow. That’s reserved for Luke. With Luke you get the journey to Bethlehem, the warmth of a stable, the baby in a manger, the shepherds in their fields, and angels filling the starlit night sky with song. And the featured player is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who captures our emotions as she ponders all that happens in her heart.
On the other hand, Matthew’s story about Jesus’ birth is stark, and a bit unsettling in the way it acknowledges the grittier side of Mary’s untimely and unusual pregnancy. What you get with Luke is wonder and amazement. But what you get with Matthew is a rather terse, clinical description of the events. No sentimental images, just Joseph wrestling with his pride, his conscience, and his soul. It begins: “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way.” The next line that follows is: “When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” “Found to be with child” is a delicate way of saying that Mary was pregnant. When Joseph receives this unexpected news, he suddenly finds himself in the position of being an unwed father, so to speak. Which, of course, he really wasn’t, which makes his situation all the more confounding and difficult.
In Joseph’s day, being engaged or betrothed was quite different from today. There were three stages to the process. First came the legally binding contract that was signed by the two families and by some outside witnesses. Money and gifts were exchanged, and an official announcement made. The second stage was the period of betrothal, which usually lasted one year. But the relationship was already legally binding and the man and woman were considered husband and wife, even though they remained separated. The third stage occurred with the wedding celebration, and the marriage would finally be consummated after the groom took his bride into his home.
Now if some problem were to arise during the engagement period, you couldn’t just take the ring back and cancel the florist and reception hall. To dissolve an engagement in that time, you had to file for a divorce. Clearly for Joseph, a problem had arisen. In fact with each passing week, the problem was going to get bigger and bigger and more obvious to everyone.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth is tight, abbreviated, not giving us much detail. But between the lines we can sense the distress of this emotionally charged situation. Mary’s announcement of being found with child was shocking. It meant the engagement contract had been violated. And her inexplicable story about being pregnant by the Holy Spirit had to give Joseph reason to question her sanity, let alone her morality. He could not help but feel bewildered, embarrassed, hurt, and quite likely angry. This young woman with whom he had publicly and legally committed himself, had apparently betrayed him. Once word got out, his friends would shake their heads and there would be gossip about him and Mary filling the ears of those in the village marketplace.
Joseph was face with a dilemma. What was he to do? What should he do?
Let’s see…there would have been two basic options. One option would have been to send Mary to trial for adultery. A woman’s virginity was considered a sacred possession, and if she were to lose her virginity, the penalty was severe – death by stoning. The law is stated in the 22nd chapter of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. It goes like this: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of the town and stone them to death…” According to the narrative, Joseph it seems rejected this harsh, cruel option.
The second option would be for Joseph to present Mary and her family with a written statement repudiating the promise of marriage. This would allow him to retain his dignity; and it would allow Mary to retain her life. He only needed two witnesses to the document to make it official, and it would be over for him. Mary, however, would be left to face her pregnancy alone. Quite possibly her family would disown her and she would become an object of scorn and criticism. Not that attractive an alternative to be sure, but certainly better than the first.
After wrestling all day over what he would do, we are told that Joseph planned to “dismiss Mary quietly,” then went to bed for the night. But sleep refused to come. He could not escape turning over the implications of his situation in his mind.
W.H. Auden in his poem, Christmas Oratorio, has a chorus voice Joseph’s inner turmoil…
Joseph have you heard
What Mary says occurred,
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely?…No.
Mary may be pure,
But Joseph are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose for instance…well.
Maybe. Maybe not.
But Joseph you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.
Finally, exhausted, Joseph fell into a troubled sleep. Then something happened. What happened? Matthew tells of a dream and an angel. In an unguarded moment of a dream, Joseph hears the voice of an angel confirming what Mary has told him. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Please note that no explanation is offered to Joseph. There’s no effort to outline the biological processes involved. It’s we who are likely to be interested in the biological possibilities. All Joseph had to go on is the reassurance the angel had to offer.
Now, I confess I’m a bit skeptical about people who claim to hear angels telling them what to do. But in the Bible, angels are quite different from the popularized image of gentle beings with beautiful white wings (with the exception of Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life).. The word “angel” comes from the Greek, and it means simply, “messenger.” Scripture doesn’t mention angels all that often; but when it does, it seems as though the angel is there to cushion the shock of a direct encounter between God and a human being.
I believe that sometimes God does choose to communicate more directly to some than to others. And I also believe that in our dreams we are less guarded and more receptive than when we are awake. So I’m willing to be open to the possibility that the angel was in some way for Joseph — God’s own mysterious presence…blurred, softened, hidden in the words delivered by an angel.
It was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “Sometimes when we listen, we are led to places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.” Joseph listened with his heart and he did a turnaround. He changed his mind. Joseph apparently understood that God can – and does – color outside the lines. He trusted that God creates possibilities where the world sees no possibilities.
The story concludes quickly and succinctly: “Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.”
And yet, you know, Joseph might just as well have forgotten his dream once the sun shined through his window the next morning. Taking Mary as his wife opened him up to some difficult consequences, with considerable personal cost. Everyone in the village would jump to the “natural” conclusion that since he did not divorce Mary, it was his child she was carrying. Which meant that Joseph would bear the burden of taking on Mary’s shame as his own. It was an act of courage.
Why would Joseph set aside his pride and jeopardize his personal reputation for Mary? Was it just the dream, or could it be something more?
Early on in the narrative, Matthew makes a point of introducing Joseph as a “righteous man.” Some biblical interpreters stress that righteousness means doing what is right, according to the laws of scripture and the norms of the faith community. By any measure of that standard, Joseph did not do the righteous thing. In fact he went against both the religious and social conventions of his time.
Often our experiences of life do not present us with a clear choice between two alternatives: one right, and the other wrong. Often discerning what is right is not all that obvious. And a little like Joseph, we are left to contend with moral ambiguities and ethical compromises in deciding what is the right thing to do.
Joseph’s decision to take Mary as his wife redefines the meaning of “righteous.” His righteousness was in doing what was merciful and compassionate – not what was expected or even required by the law. Joseph went beyond the narrow interpretation of righteousness for the sake of Mary and the child he would name Jesus.
Of all the people in the Christmas drama, I think we can identify with Joseph. He is the one who is not noticed by many, but makes an important difference. He is the one who is most like us when we are presented with a situation beyond our control and tempted to take the easy, expected way out. He is the one who listened to the intuitions of his heart and showed compassion, choosing the way of Christ’s grace over his own interests.
We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph later on. But he was there to support Mary and be a parent to Jesus. He was there to teach Jesus his craft in his carpenter shop. He was there to take Jesus to the synagogue where the rabbis taught the child the stories and meaning of faith. He was there to be Jesus’ role model, teaching him the quality of character by the way he lived.
Christmas would not have happened the same way without Joseph. Jesus would not have grown up the same way without Joseph. And so every time one of us says: “I choose to do what is right for another as best I can,” like Joseph, we are a part of the Christmas story.
May it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.