Other than his occupation, Joseph of Nazareth is famous for one thing and one thing alone: being a stepfather. His life has accumulated centuries of tradition, but turn to the Bible and Joseph is a fairly minimal presence – we don’t know if he was a contemporary of Mary or substantially older, we don’t know if he was really a carpenter or if the word would better be translated as ‘builder’, we don’t know why this loyal and righteous man disappears so suddenly from the pages of the gospels.
This last mystery is the one that’s always stuck with me. Tradition says he died of old age, but that always feels like a plot device necessary to support Mary’s eternal virginity. And yet there’s something shocking about saying he may have died of cancer, or violence, or an accident on a building site, something intimate and intrusive about the speculation. The very idea brings into focus the Now-But-Not-Yet Kingdom of God and all its tensions – the Son of God who healed so many couldn’t save the man who raised him. There’s something heartbreaking about that.
Maybe I take the story personally. I’m a stepfather myself, and that means you ask yourself questions, questions about where you fit in, about how to relate to your kids, about how it feels to be reminded you’re the latecomer every time someone realises you’ve got a different surname to your children. And yes, twenty centuries separate those specific questions from Joseph’s own experience, but something similar would have gone through his mind, when the workshop was quiet, when he lay awake at night.
But you put those thoughts aside. You have a family, you have kids, and you love them and look after them. That’s what Joseph did; from the start he tries to make the right choices. Instead of having Mary stoned for apparent adultery, he decides to quietly divorce her and let her go. When he discovers the truth he doesn’t run, he accepts his role in God’s plan. And when the death squads come looking for Bethlehem’s baby boys, Joseph gets his family the hell out of Dodge and into Egypt. The Bible tells us he’s a righteous man, but that sounds lofty and pious; in reality, he strikes me as a normal, practical man who makes the right choices for those he loves. I pray I’d be able to do the same; often that prayer comes from my weakness and my failings.
But then, I think most of us are like Joseph – ordinary people trying to figure out ordinary lives in which the divine sometimes visits in unexpected ways. And when that happens, Joseph is a decent role model. There are so many calls to ‘Christian’ ‘masculinity’ that want men to be the next David, the next Braveheart. Yeah, okay, but I don’t want to be a warrior. Given the choice, I’d rather be a carpenter, rather be able to build things, rather be able to fix things, rather be able to craft things. I’m not, of course; my dad was the carpenter in the family, and my granddad. Me? I’m an office manager, a writer, an occasional preacher. And God can work through all those, and my family, just as he worked through Joseph. All I can do is pray that I’d be a righteous man; a righteous man and a decent stepdad.