When it comes to Christmas, we think of Mary & Jesus, the animals in the stable, the angels singing overhead, the shepherds who will come leaving their sheep, the magi bringing gifts and then there is Joseph. Joseph is always there but he does seem at times to be a side character, not as important as the others. I think of a Nativity Icon, that captures all the different stories of Christmas and there Joseph sits in the corner of the icon, with his head resting in his hands wondering what has happened…
And yet as father, his love and his presence directly influenced Jesus as he grew up.
He taught his young son how to follow the grain of a piece of olive wood, how to plane it, how to square it and join it firmly to another piece of wood to build a table or chair or, later, a house; he also taught him patience, kindness and justice, and the value of earning a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work in order to put bread on the table.
Joseph, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins, “lives in 10,000 places”: the man who rises at 2 A.M. to plow deserted snow-clogged roads; the nurse who works the night shift and then a day shift; the cop who walks the lonely beat; the mother with the autistic daughter or paralyzed son; the office worker biting his lip at some slight or racial insensitivity subtly directed at him because he, too, has to put bread on his family’s table.
Joseph lives in the sales rep with photos of his wife and kids hanging on the wall inside his cubicle, telling a customer that, as much as he’d like to sell him another car, the customer can still get another couple of years out of the one he’s got. Joseph lives in the teacher who gives hours of her time to help the struggling student. Joseph lives in the clerk, the cop, the secretary, the contractor who approaches the people they encounter with kindness and respect because they, too, share the God-like work of putting bread on their family’s table.
The invisible, almost anonymous Joseph: chosen by God to provide for his Son, to watch over him, to teach him, to shape him, to protect and love him and the boy’s mother. [Adapted from Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions by Paul Mariani.]
In today’s Gospel — Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth — Christmas depends on Joseph, whose life has been turned upside by the angel’s news, who had to say yes to the news. Joseph accepts the angel’s words and made the boy his own, not as a matter of biology, but as a matter of love and compassion, of trust and faith in God. God’s birth in our midst depends on human partners — Mary & Joseph, you & me — willing to put aside our fears and dare to hope that God is with us, guiding us forward.
The Gospel of Matthew reminds us of the importance of Joseph, for Jesus is named by the angel to Joseph in a dream. Dreams play important roles in the lives of so many characters in the bible.
For Joseph, when he heard the angel speak to him in that dream, he had a decision to make. Joseph was engaged to be married to Mary. He found out she was pregnant. He knew it wasn’t his. What was he to do?
He could throw her out, and make a huge stink and let everyone know about the child conceived out of wedlock. He could get the people to ostracize her, maybe even stone her to death. But Joseph was a righteous man, and he decided to dismiss her quietly, a generous and merciful act. But in that dream an angel of the Lord appears to him and everything changes
It is a startling dream and it must have shook his soul, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit, and you will name him Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph had set his mind on leaving her. He could have said no to the angel. But Joseph does not, he listens, he takes Mary as his wife. And Jesus is born. And all will change because of this child. The words of Isaiah ring in our ears: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” and “he will refuse the evil and choose the good.”
Joseph sets an example for us: The willingness to change one’s mind when confronted by God’s word and God’s spirit. The courage in the midst of fear to follow God’s way even if one does not know where it may lead. In the words of W. H. Auden:
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith.
In the Christmas story of Matthew - we see the Spirit of God at work, transforming heartache and misery into birth and blessing.
That same Spirit calls us to be about the work of bringing God to birth in our own houses and stables, to our own Bethlehems and Nazareths, even if the way is difficult. Christmas calls from us "something wonderful": the grace of God that enables us to experience the same transformation that Joseph underwent in the Gospel of Matthew’s story. He is not part of the story we should forget. And we need to honor & praise his role.
In this season and in every season, may we imitate the compassion and faith of Joseph: to seek understanding and acceptance within our families even at the cost of our own expectations and hopes, to be sources of affirmation and support for our friends, spouses and children. To say yes when God calls to us through our dreams. Amen.