I read a blog post the other day that I have not been able to get off of my mind. It was titled What do we do with Joseph? The author explained that as her youngest daughter played with a nativity set she asked her mother why Joseph was included. “Mommy, if God is Jesus’ dad and Mary is Jesus’ mom then why do we need this guy?” The blog has a social justice thrust and the author was ultimately identifying with Joseph. She made the connection that she as a white, heterosexual American woman is for all intents and purposes in the position of Joseph in society today too. A position of power. She ended her post by essentially stating that she doesn’t know ultimately why Joseph was a part of the narrative of Christ’s birth nor does she know why God chooses to use her in 2017, but he has chosen to use them both, and so she’s happy to do her part.
OK people, can you hear me right now? I am groaning with despair over this statement she’s made.
While I understand in premise what the writer was trying to say, my gut response as I’ve read it over again and considered it over and over again in this Christmas season is this:
“God left Joseph in the story because FATHERS ARE NOT JUST SPERM DONORS!”
Sorry, I realize this comes across as crass but its the only way I know how to put it. I remember one of the first thoughts I had when Ellie was born was that I cannot imagine how women and men do the newborn months alone. 2 years into this journey of parenthood I STILL don’t know how people raise children alone?! I know this happens more often than we realize and I also know unequivocally that there is amazing grace available for the single moms and dads out there who as a result of sin or death are raising children alone. Yet I think Joseph and his part in the nativity is proof positive that God’s plan of redemption is an invitation to each of us to be active participants in a plan that often doesn’t look the way we expect.
I personally love the fact that God intervened in the life of a first century man named Joseph and said “Hi there Joe. Want to get in on what I’m doing here?”
The writer is correct that most of us can probably relate to Joseph though I don’t relate to him in the way that she did. I’m betting Joseph was pretty excited to get married when they were first engaged. I can picture him thinking about how he’d construct his life with Mary. Maybe he wanted to set up shop in the town where they’d met and they’d have a couple of kids and a white picket fence. Maybe he wanted to wait a few years to have kids and travel a bit before he and Mary settled down. What I am certain of is this. Joseph never imagined he’d live the first few years of his life on the run with a child that was conceived before he ever even spent a single night with his wife. He never thought following God would present the probable feelings of intense alienation as he stood by a woman he hardly knew and experienced their communal shunning together.
I imagine Joseph silently walking Mary on his donkey to Bethlehem and trying to convince himself the entire way that he’d heard God right. I imagine him trying to convince himself that what Mary said happened was really true and she was having a baby without ever having known a man intimately.
As I’m relating to Joseph this Advent I’m starting to imagine a great relationship with him, my spiritual grandfather of sorts, when we meet some day. We’ll sit down for coffee on the front porch of his or my heavenly mansion and talk about the times we had to walk in faith. We’ll share all the times in life that we had to lean on the chair of our lives with our whole selves and have faith that the chair wouldn’t break under the weight of it all. We’ll talk about the final moment of faith when the chair actually did break. We dropped to the ground in flurry of scary hot pain only to look up and realize that Jesus, Joseph’s son, was right there when the dust settled with a hand to help us up and welcome us home.
Most of all I think we’ll talk about how the Lord called us into what I have started to call “a third way.”
With human eyes its easy for us to believe in our Joseph moments that we only have two options in front of us. We can either cut ourselves off from the situation and “divorce Mary quietly” as Joseph originally intended to do or we can remain “dutiful” for the rest of our lives and eventually begrudge the losses we endure as we slowly whither under the weight of the anvil that we’ve now personally placed on our backs.
This, readers, is just an impossible scenario.
I will not do this.
I cannot do this.
And you shouldn’t settle for this either.
For all the focus on Mary in the nativity story, I wonder if Joseph might actually be the true hero in the story of Christmas. I don’t want to minimize Mary’s sacrifice as it was and is extraordinary. Yet Mary also had an angel of the Lord visit her in person in dazzling glory. I think if a terrifying, fiery angel showed up at my door I’d fall to my knees, hide my face and tell him to take whatever he wanted.
Joseph though? All he had was a dream and a religious tradition that said if you put the weight of your life on the chair of faith the chair may or may not break. The only guarantee for him was that the God who made the fiery angels would be there to pull him out of the wreckage regardless of what happened to the chair. I can imagine with his very human eyes that this was a terrifying proposition given how little he likely knew about the glory of God. After all, what do any of us really know about the glory of God?
So Joseph walked a donkey to Bethlehem because as a man who had big dreams for his life it was the only thing that he could really do. He knocked on doors and tried to convince himself that he was doing the right thing when he found a stable for his betrothed to labor in. Mary breathed hard and cried out and Joseph, unknowingly, made room for her fears while he leaned on his God with the weight of his whole self.
And when it was over Joseph held his son in his arms and introduced this newborn stranger to the animals in the barn. Just when he thought that holding a living breathing baby in spite of the pain and the fear they had just endured was the miracle, people started showing up. Shepherds came in their rags and filth and testified that glory had showed up in the fields where they’d been sleeping. They all, this new family and poor shepherds, sat in their poverty and marveled at what God was doing among the poor through this boy. Then kings came from the east and brought gifts from their kingdoms. They all, this new family and the kings, sat in their wealth and marveled at what God was doing among the rich through Joseph’s son.
At some point in it all I hope Joseph realized that the third option that God offered him was the space that would bring all of his fears and all of his dreams together in one terrifyingly glorious place. If he’d lean into the fear that an unknown future with God offers, he’d slowly and surely get to the place where God meets us. That space is where our personal poverty spills up and out in such a way that our personal riches in Christ eventually fill to overflowing.
Joseph became all that God intended him to become, he became truly human, by saying yes to God’s third way, the way that doesn’t always seem right or feel right but ultimately is right over and over and over again for a lifetime. In so doing he’s been graced with a place in the nativity story. The only enduring story there ever was.
Thank you God for including Joseph, a man like you and like me, in the Christmas story. We identify with him because we do not always know that you are FOR US in a world and a body that changes in ways we do not expect. Help us to look for the third way. Show us this way in a way we can understand and help us to walk it in faith. We know that somewhere along the way we’ll see your glory and when we do, things will never be the same.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” Isaiah 11: 1-5