The unsung hero of the Nativity sleeps fitfully, thoughts racing through his head. This is a man used to building, constructing, working with his hands. He’s not a priest, not a prophet, he feels out of his depth. Is God drawing near, or is Mary’s story just a tissue of lies wrapped in pious language? The situation is hard enough as it is, but everything feels much worse in the quiet of 3am.
And then Joseph of Nazareth, an ordinary man from an ordinary town, dreams of angels.
It’s interesting that, throughout the Bible, encounters with angels are accompanied by the words “Do not be afraid”, the whole experience being so awe-inspiring and overwhelming that the participants need to take a moment to simply calm down enough enough to receive a message. The same words are used here, but Joseph is less afraid of the angel and more afraid of the future.
You can’t blame him. His relationship with Mary has seemingly just collapsed, his head swimming with thoughts of betrayal and love and rage and anguish. Sure, Mary says this is all of God, but is she hiding something? Has she been with another man? Has she been raped? What’s really going on?
I’m surprised Joseph slept enough to even have a dream.
He’s a good man though, a righteous man. He knows that Mary’s life is in his hands, that one word from him could get her stoned for adultery, or at the very least ostracised from the community. He wants a quiet divorce, to spare Mary from humiliation; his only other option is to go through with the marriage, leaving his reputation in tatters as well: either people believe he’s the father and he’s been sleeping with Mary before he should, or he’s not the father and he’s a naive fool taken in by a sinful young girl.
And then he has a vision that tells him to not be afraid, that Mary’s telling the truth, that God is at work, and he accepts that, goes along with the plan regardless of the cost to his reputation. He stands by Mary, gets her to Bethlehem, finds her somewhere to give birth.
Somewhere to give birth. They end up amongst the animals because all the decent rooms are gone. If either of them have any living relatives in Bethlehem then the Bible is silent about any support they received; we’re left with the impression that they’re effectively on their own.
And so Joseph, who expected to be a husband but not a father just yet, may well have been going through all the fears and insecurities fathers experience – Can I provide for my family? Can I even cope with all this? Look, I’m supposed to be looking after my wife and baby and the best I can give them is a stable. Great.
How did he feel when he first saw Jesus, saw Mary cradling the new-born? What thoughts went through his mind in the relative calm before shepherds and Magi and fleeing to Egypt?
How did he feel when Jesus was growing up? Did he teach him, play with him, yell at neighbourhood bullies, work until stupid-o-clock to put food on the table? He was a skilled labourer, so did he get contracted to work on one of the Herods’ great construction projects? Did he help with the carpentry on famous buildings, forever on the fringes of history?
Did he teach those skills to Jesus, hoping that the boy would follow in his footsteps, while paradoxically hoping that his son would go on to greater things? Did he understand, really understand that Jesus was the Messiah? Did he lie awake some nights, remembering what had happened to others who had claimed that title, fearing this whole situation would end badly? Or did he believe, down to his bones, that Jesus would one day liberate mankind, allowing himself some hope, maybe even some pride in his son?
And how did he feel when Jesus went missing for three days at the age of 12? Did he understand that the Temple was an appropriate place for the young Messiah to hang out? Or did the words “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” come as an unintended punch to the gut?
All these questions. We have no answers, of course, because Joseph disappears early on in the narrative. The assumption is he died, but we have no details. Some say it was simply old age, that he was already elderly during that first Christmas, that Mary was actually his second wife because how else could you explain Jesus’s brothers and sisters if Mary was a perpetual virgin? There are other potential explanations if you don’t buy that – illness, construction accident… One theory is that he ended up an innocent victim of the intermittent clashes between Romans and radicals. We just don’t know.
I know what it’s like to lose a father though, and so I see Jesus, a young man trying to hold it together for the sake of his family, grieving, crying, escaping for some time alone. Was there a greater burden on his shoulders though? Was he aware, at that point, of his authority over life and death and cancer and injury? Was this one of his earliest temptations, to save his earthly father, even if it wasn’t the right time for miracles to start the countdown to the Cross?
All these questions. I guess I’m asking them because I’m a new step-dad myself, and so Joseph’s story raises similar hopes, fears and insecurities. He’s the unsung hero of the Nativity, the man who stood by Mary, protected Jesus, who did his best in a strange and unprecedented situation, who was a righteous man and, I believe, a great step-father. And yet he remains an…
I was going to say he remains an enigma, but that’s not appropriate – it’s too mysterious, too grandiose. In reality his story is that of millions of working-class fathers throughout history, who worked hard and did their best and loved their families, who remain unrecorded by the history books because they weren’t GREAT MEN even if they were great men. Joseph’s in every Nativity play but he gets sidelined once shepherds and kings show up and he sometimes gets less lines than the sheep. That’s history for you.
But I pray to the one who lived and spoke and played with Joseph that I too can be a good father. Because as I suspect Joseph realised, our children are more important than the history books.