The infancy narrative, the birth of Jesus Christ, is one of the most widely known and beloved historic accounts in all of human history. In the days to come, countless children will perform its reenactment and clergy will reaffirm its significance the world over. While their place in our story of redemption can’t be overstated, another importance of the holy family as they are referred, Jesus, his mother Mary and earthly father Joseph is their embodiment of what we should all aim for in our relationships, our faith, and ourselves. The nativity is one of human courage, unwavering faith, and sacrificial love; and though the record naturally centers on Jesus and his mother Mary, Joseph occupies an important albeit secondary role.
We are introduced to Joseph in the books of Matthew and Luke within the canonical gospels. Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that Joseph was a widower of middle age with several children under his care when he meets and agrees to betroth the much younger Mary. It’s in preparation for the upcoming nuptials that we enter their story.
As I think on the nativity I can’t help but to reflect on Joseph and the role he played in the birth of Jesus and particularly what the story of his life reveals to all those who read it today, especially of men. It’s through the eyes of a man that I’m led to the belief that Joseph has much to still teach about us manhood some two thousand years later.
Joseph was man of character – it’s difficult to debate the strong moral fiber of Joseph. For starters, if in fact Joseph was a widower, he was so with four or more children in tow and just as many reasons to pawn those children off on others for their care and protection. Yet he upheld his fatherly obligation and searched for a suitable and required replacement for his deceased wife never forgetting the responsibility he bore as their father. Second, upon hearing of Mary’s pregnancy during their betrothal ‘he decided not to put shame upon her and resolved to divorce her quietly’ when Jewish law called for an adulteress to be stoned. We would do well to remember Joseph’s integrity when we desire to walk out on our children, sacrifice our family for the gleam of the corporate latter, or demoralize and humiliate our wives for a good laugh.
Joseph was a man of courage and sacrifice – Contrary to popular perceptions, first century Jerusalem was not a land of peace and plenty as the yearly Christmas play might otherwise portray. At the time of Jesus’s birth the Jewish nation was under the yoke of a Roman Empire and Judea was under the heel of King Herod the Great, a madman drunk with power and willing to do whatever to maintain it including the murder of his own family. It was a dangerous and unstable time for any Jew and especially that of a meager carpenter, his children, and a pregnant bride. When the king heard of the potential coming of the prophesied Messiah, Herod decreed that all boys in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two be summarily executed in the hopes of stifling any future usurper. When revealed in a dream of what was to come Joseph packed his family including a newborn son and made the 200 plus mile trip to Egypt and relative safety only to make the trip back several years later upon Herod’s death. In a world of convenience on demand it’s easy to grow agitated with the needs of our children and the sacrifices we are asked to make for their behalf. Joseph’s courage and surrender should be a constant reminder that all fathers are called first and foremost to protect and serve their families.
Joseph was a man of acceptance – It is vitally important that we realize this fact. Joseph underwent the certain shame of marrying a recognized adulterer, dodged the wrath of a blood thirsty ruler, and navigated the perilous journey across a lifeless desert all for a son that was never truly his. This is a detail which can’t be emphasized enough. He did what the Jewish community said he wasn’t required to do. Joseph could very well be the first man in history who refused to allow ‘blood’ to keep him from being a daddy. He fathered his step-son in much the same way any first century father would his own legitimate male child, as evidenced by a name Jesus was often referred by, the Carpenter from Galilee.
It’s interesting to note that the only knowledge we have of Joseph is contained within a few versus of the New Testament, yet his name has lived on for over twenty centuries. It’s arguable that he is the greatest father that ever lived, who else would willingly accept the pressure of raising the Savior of the world and God incarnate? Maybe that’s why Joseph is not just a saint, but the Patron Saint of Fathers.
Image: Guido Reni c. 1620 / Matt. 1:19 (ESV)