Part three of a series….
He is often overlooked. An afterthought in the drama of the nativity, a fill-in plaster figure bent at the shoulders peering down at the Christ-child in wonder, distinguishable from the shepherds only in his lack of shepherd’s crook. Joseph.
And yet…this man, adoptive father of Jesus, this obedient servant of God, this protector and husband, is one of the most shining examples of strength of character you can find in the Bible. He shows us where real strength lies, where in human weakness God’s alchemy yields most profound strength.
It must have been hard to be Joseph. Mary was beautiful and pure and sweet, and he must have been looking very forward to their marriage. What a shock, then, to find that she was pregnant! And no matter how much he knew of her character, he must have at first thought the worst…Mary had been shockingly unfaithful. What was this about angels, about a pure and innocent conception, about the Messiah? Not only must it have sound contrived, but also bordering on blasphemic.
In Joseph’s time, marriage was so different. Their betrothal, rather than a promise of future union, was really a first stage of marriage. The second…the completion of the promise, where the two would come together as one and finally live together in the same home…would also be celebrated with traditions different from the ones we know today. Joseph’s marriage would have been a family affair, his parents would have been the ones to decide…now is the time to bring Mary home. In the meantime, the bridegroom waited.
And built. A carpenter, Joseph would have taken particular pride in the preparations. Although we can’t know for sure if this was the case for Joseph, many families in that time lived together, adding rooms to the house as children married and had families of their own. When his family was ready, Joseph would begin to build a space for the two of them, to prepare the way. Perhaps his father worked alongside him, the two swinging hammers and laughing, sweating in the hot sun of Galilee. Perhaps they talked of marriage, of parenting, of the future to come. He knew Mary would have already prepared her wedding dress, sewing her hopes and dreams into the fabric with each stitch. The dress would have been made ready early on, would have been set aside and hung carefully, waiting for the day of their marriage.
The day of their marriage…not a date on a calender, for Mary. It was up to Joseph’s family to decide when that day would be, the wedding and the joyful feasting afterwards. It would be a surprise to Mary…what disgrace she would have felt if the day came and the dress had not been finished! So it must have been there, waiting. I can see Mary going to it when she had a quiet moment, fingering the embroidery on the sleeves, thinking of the wedding to come and wondering….will it be soon? And Joseph, mallet in hand, working on their rooms in all the free hours he could find. I see him pause, lost in thoughts of their future together…wipe his brow, gaze toward the horizon.
How his heart must have sank.
How could he take Mary as a wife, knowing she was pregnant? The shame of it must have been enormous, the betrayal crushing. Did his family know? How did they react? Joseph showed the first of his strength then, when he decided to quietly divorce Mary rather than publicly humiliate her, even have her stoned. But how his heart must have ached, thinking of those rooms, that dress, the wedding that wouldn’t happen. How the neighbors would have talked, if they knew.
And then…the angel spoke to Joseph as well. He understood. And took Mary as his wife.
This is where I see an example in Joseph that we need so much today. Despite what it looked like, despite the fact that the truth would be unbelievable to so many people both then and now….Joseph believed. He obeyed. He put his pride aside, and showed the world that strength of character comes in acceptance, in doing what is right despite what others think of you. That in putting pride aside you make room for God’s work to be completed.
What was their wedding like? Did Mary get to wear her dress, did they have the week of feasting and celebrating that they had planned? Were the horns sounded, were voices lifted in song? Or did they slip quietly away, marry quickly and begin life together in the shadow of the doubts and judgement of others? How ironic, that the parents of the only human ever fit to judge humainty may have began their journey with the dog of judgement nipping at their heels.
Joseph stood firm. He did the right thing, regardless of what others may have thought or said. He stood strong against the storm. He placed his hope in Yahweh, not in man.
And so doing he raised…in love and acceptance… the Son of God.