I find myself noticing things this Christmas season that I haven’t before.
Take Joseph. Ya, that guy, the non-biological father of Jesus. How often I have overlooked him at Christmas. Like what happened in a story I heard this week of a mother who called the church office to let the staff know that her son who was playing the role of Joseph in the kids Christmas Musical had fallen ill and would be unable to perform. The director, deciding that it was too late to replace him, simply wrote Joseph out of the script. Apparently, as the story goes, no one even noticed.
But Joseph is integral. Looking over church history I was surprised to find the impact of this man on the shaping and understanding of the Christian faith far beyond the Nativity. The Franciscans in 1399 popularized the recognition of Joseph as a Saint in Church tradition and the 19th century saw the emergence of the Josephites who gave themselves to working amongst the poor. He became the patron saint for families, travelers, immigrants, craftsman, engineers and working people in general, especially the working poor. I find this quite captivating, and of course, never knew this about his legacy until I began to see him with fresh eyes. No wonder, although pretty much an unsung hero, he finds such respect in Church tradition. Understanding a bit more about Joseph not only gives me hope but exemplifies the kind of man I would like to be through the end of this year and into 2021.
“Joseph, kind, upstanding and honorable, wanted to spare Mary shame and did not wish to cause her more embarrassment than necessary. As Joseph pondered whether to act on his instincts and quietly marry her despite the awkwardness of her pregnancy and the complication of their engagement, a messenger of the Lord came to him in a dream and said, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 1:19-20 (story stitched together from the NIV, NASB, Message and Voice English translations of the text.)
Over the centuries there are those who have questioned Matthews narrative. Both opponents of Christianity, and some Christians themselves have found it to be embarrassing and unnecessary—possibly even untrue. But Matthew here is simply telling the story that he believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. Smack dab in the middle of all its scandalous glory is Joseph.
“In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a narrative or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative, namely that Mary had become pregnant through some more obvious but less reputable means?” Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (pp. 6–7). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Joseph lived out this story in real time and space facing the scrutiny and bizarreness of a pretty zany situation. I am feeling this same vulnerability this Christmas. These are indeed strange times.
For many people already, pre COVID-19, much of the underpinnings of the more miraculous, and dare I say, bizarre components of our faith were under scrutiny. Even currently, the term “de-constructing faith” has found its way into our daily lexicon of discourse in the church. Dissatisfaction with institutions in general, let alone the Church, is at an all-time high. The polarization that exists right across our society has only been heightened and further revealed through the pandemic we are enduring.
I see some things in Joseph that I would like to see in myself these days. Marks of character and faith that I pray will be evident in our communities across the nation. Things I hope will become second nature to us as followers of the Jesus Way.
First, Joseph was a nice guy. As crazy as it seems, this is a quality that is in short supply these days. I remember John Wimber saying to me several times and in various settings, when all else fails, “just be nice. At least do that and we may have a shot at walking through together whatever challenges we’re facing.”
Joseph was kind. He was upstanding. He was honorable. And the end game of being this kind of person was that he did not want to bring shame upon Mary. He did not want to cause her any more embarrassment than necessary. Yes, God was at work. Yes, there were seismic implications to what he was witnessing. Yet, in the midst of all, most certainly without having it all figured out, his concern was for Mary. How she would be handling all of this and the impact it would have on her life.
Joseph, thanks for helping me see how much I need to embrace this posture in this time with so many people facing so much upheaval and confusion. The resulting emotional and societal climate needs a good dose of kindness.
Secondly, he did not give into fear, or perhaps more accurately to the Greek, did not shrink back, and leaned into discovering where the Holy Spirit was at work. Seeing what He was conceiving and what He was up to. Then from that place of quiet resolve (it is remarkable that we actually have no record of anything Joseph ever said), he stepped out in obedience and risk. He would do it again a couple of times in the near future taking Mary and the baby Jesus into Egypt for safety and then home again to Israel at the direction of angelic direction in his dreams. Each case the text states that he “woke up” and “did it.” Each time not a recorded word. Just simple obedience and wonder at Gods miraculous guidance and intervention. Step by step.
Thanks Joseph, for helping me see how much I need to cultivate this kind of vision in this time of Advent. To quell fear as I listen to Gods messengers as they beckon me to trust Him and to have my eyes opened to what the Holy Spirit is conceiving in this moment. In this time. In this place. I will be able to walk, step by step, day by day, into the obedience that guides my steps.
Thirdly, Joseph took Mary home. He took her as his wife. This brings me full circle to the desire of Joseph to not bring any undue shame upon Mary by providing a place for her. To do life with her in the most intimate and costly of ways. It is worth noting that this sentiment which arose in Joseph was prior to any angelic visitation or divine epiphany. He was already thinking this way and the dream served to only confirm his instincts. I love this.
I am so grateful to Joseph for the way he awakens in me the desire to be a safe person. To provide sanctuary for others. To make room for the work of the Holy Spirit to play out throughout the journey and grit of life. Joseph did not bring Mary and her child in for a moment. He brought them home. Perhaps you identify with Joseph. Jesus is really turning everything upside-down right now. Christmas plans are for the most part in shambles. Advent is upheaval as much as it is anything else. Whatever is swirling around you right now, lean in. Take a page from Joseph’s play book this season: be nice; be courageous; and be safe.