Perhaps like many of you, we took time over the Thanksgiving weekend to decorate our home for the Christmas season. It began with my usual decorating the outside walkways with candy canes. It continued with putting up my beloved Christmas village. We put up our tree with ornaments we’ve collected over the years, and we put up our Nativity set.
We have several Nativity sets in our home and in my office. My favorite is actually the one that is not the most appealing. It is one that currently sits in my office. It is a small painted set that I got at a White Elephant Christmas party years ago. When it came to me and my turn to trade it or keep it, I actually went against the custom of trading and kept the set. Why? Because at the time I didn’t have a Nativity set of my own and it was quirky enough that I felt it and I would be a good match.
Nativity sets, no matter what they are or look like, are treasured decorations each Advent and Christmas season. They combine all the elements of the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke to give us an artistic rendering of the scene. The descriptions we have from Scripture do not take place with all the characters – Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, shepherds, angels, and the Magi –being there together at the same time. So, there is artistic liberty taking place in many of our sets, and we can appreciate how they invite us to see things that are present within the stories that lead up to Jesus’ birth.
Throughout the Advent season, we are going to take a look at some of the characters that appear in our Nativity sets. We’ll share about their lives, how they came to be part of the story, and how they shape our understanding of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today. Our journey beginswith the least known of the characters involved with Jesus’ birth – Joseph.
Joseph is the only main character from the lead-up to Jesus’ birth who does not have a speaking line. We hear from Mary, Elizabeth, and even Zechariah, but we have no statement or personal comment of reflection from Joseph about all that took place in his life as a result of the coming of the baby. Even more, we don’t have a lot of references to Joseph in general in the New Testament. There are less than 20 references to Joseph in the Gospels and most of them refer to him being the father of Jesus. Only in Matthew’s Gospel do we have any details of significance about Joseph.
We learn in Matthew 13:55 that Joseph was a carpenter. This detail comes from people who could not understand where Jesus got his understanding of Scripture from. Most males would take on the family business. Jesus likely did take up his father’s practice as a carpenter. A carpenter in Jesus’ time was different than a carpenter today. We might think of a carpenter as someone who builds homes and other buildings. Most homes were built out of stone, so Josephprobably built door frames and tools for farming. He was also described as a tekton, which was a carpenter who was skilled, but not necessarily one who would have had people working for him. If Joseph had people working for him, he would have been an archtekton, which is where we get the word architect from.
Matthew and Luke are the only Gospel writers who focus on the details leading up to Jesus’ birth, and Matthew was the only one to give any attention to Joseph. Matthew was writing primarily to a Jewish audience. Thus details about Joseph, given that it was a patriarchal society, were important for the reader, especially since we learn that Joseph was a direct descendant ofDavid. It was long expected that the Messiah would come from the Davidic line. Even then, we don’t receive a lot of details about Joseph.
Because of that, we have tried to fill in the gaps with our stories and traditions about who Joseph is. We often do that when Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of details about history or context, so that things make sense to us. The gaps we try to fill surround Joseph’s age and why he was not present in Jesus’ life after he was about 12. Some of the apocryphal books – books written around the time of the New Testament that were not considered to have Scriptural authority – has some interesting stories about Joseph. There are stories that Joseph was an elderly man, perhaps even a priest who was asked to take on Mary as wife. Our Catholic brothers and sisters maintain both that he was an older man and also that he and Mary never had sexual relations as a couple. This idea is held because of their view of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which we will talk more about when we focus on Mary.
Scripture doesn’t move us away from these thoughts, but it also doesn’t lead us to them either. Personally, I think it is more likely that Joseph was the typical age for a male to be married in those days. This would make Joseph around 18-20 years old. So, imagine yourself at that age being told that your fiancé is pregnant and you are not the father.
That is what Mary tells Joseph. She is his fiancé and probably went to Bethlehem to visit Joseph to tell him what was going on after visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, in Ein Karem. The historic home of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist was located just outside of Jerusalem, a few miles from Bethlehem.
In Jesus’ time, a marriage existed in three parts. First, there was the arrangement of the couple either by the parents or a matchmaker with the couple’s assent. Second, there was a year-long engagement that could only be broken through divorce. Finally, there was the actual wedding and the start of the marriage relationship.
It is in this engagement period that Mary tells Joseph that she was pregnant with the long-expected Messiah. This was not a day of joy and hope for Joseph. It was a day of despair. He had hopes and dreams for his relationship with Mary and, in this moment, they all vanished. He is hurt and is not sure he can believe her story.
Joseph’s immediate response was to act out of that pain and seek to end the relationship. Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous person. This has two meanings in this Gospel. It means someone who believes that strict observance of the law is mandatory for right living. This was a term used to describe the Pharisees and others who thought that was the way of salvation. It was also used to describe people like Joseph who sought to live out the law through grace. Joseph, in the midst of his pain, was looking for a way to gracefully do the right thing.
We can relate to what Joseph is feeling in this moment. We’ve also known moments where we have expected things to be joyful or happy only for them to be filled with sorrow or pain. We know what it is like to have all of our dreams and desires broken and taken away. We know, as well, what it is like to wrestle with how to respond and move forward. So, we can understand that Joseph doubted her story and was looking for a way out.
That way out, for Joseph, was to seek a divorce. The law required two public witnesses to a divorce proceeding. For this to happen, Joseph would have had to announce to the community that Mary had committed adultery. It would have brought shame to her and would likely hinder any chance she would have of entering into a new relationship. It would have ruined her life. Joseph loves Mary and does not want that for her. Instead, he decides to do it quietly so no shame is placed upon her. Others have suggested that this would have placed the shame upon Joseph. Think about what this means. If he divorced her quietly, and once Mary began to show, Joseph would have been seen as a deadbeat for not following through in marrying her.
Would you be able to do that? I’m not sure I could. To take the ridicule, shame, and criticism from your family, friends, and neighbors for something that you were not responsible for in order to protect someone else is the height of divine grace.
This was the heart of Joseph, and it is what he was resolved to do when he went to bed, perhaps the same night after he met with Mary. It was then that he was visited by an angel in a dream. Like his Old Testament namesake, the dream was a way for God to convey an important message to him. The dream had two important messages for Joseph. First, he was told not be afraid. This was an important message for someone who was living in fear and anxiety about everything he had been told. The other part of the dream was to confirm what Mary had told Joseph. He would take Mary as his wife, because she had not been unfaithful. This child would be the long-expected Messiah who would be the Savior of all people.
Matthew offers an in–text commentary on what was taking place. He brings up Isaiah 7:14 as a way to help others understand what was taking place. In Isaiah, the prophet writes of the promise of a baby during a time of difficulty for Israel, which would come to experience peace during his lifetime. It was a promise of hope. Matthew sees this passage being fulfilled in a deeper sense through the life of Jesus. He was the one coming to offer true hope and peace to all people.
This hope comes in the very name of “Immanuel.” The word means “God with us.” That very message gives us hope to know that in all things God is there. Even when things are dark and difficult, there is the message of hope that comes in the promise of the long-expected Christ child. God is present in the difficult moments to offer hope and to point us to the light of God’s holy love that breaks into the darkness.
That hope had come for Joseph. He had experienced the promise of God’s hope through the dream. As a result, Joseph changes course and takes Mary as his wife. He is there with her when Jesus is born and raises him as his own son. He protects him from Herod and takes him to Egypt as a refugee when Herod sought to kill all male children under the age of 2 in an effort to eliminate the threat from Jesus. We can imagine that in the good and difficult days of raising Jesus, Joseph felt the presence of God’s hope to encourage and strengthen him.
What we see in this silent person of the Nativity story is a picture of God’s hope. Joseph is a witness for us that God’s hope is present, especially when we have a hard time experiencing it for ourselves.
Perhaps today we need to see ourselves in Joseph’s story. Maybe you are dealing with something that seems too difficult and you are trying to figure out the right thing to do. Maybe you are feeling as though you are alone and God’s hope is not present. Look to the story of Joseph and see that God is there when it is hard, but also see that God will point you to a hope of light that shines in the midst of darkness.
Joseph is a witness of hope. May we experience that same hope Joseph felt in our lives today.