I have always held a soft spot for the little guy, that nameless and faceless mass of everyday folk who make little noise and little splash but without whom the world would fall apart. I’ve always held a soft spot for Christmas as well. Mostly, I guess, because the one has very much to do with the other. Christmas is a little guy time of year.
It’s always about the baby, have you ever noticed that? As it should be, don’t get me wrong. It’s the baby and the angels and the shepherds, the virgin who kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. Among all the stories I have ever read or been told, the one of that first Christmas will always remain my favorite. Hope, wrapped up in a little boy.
For me, though, it isn’t only about the Christ child. Not the shepherds in the fields, those poorest of the poor who were the first recipients of the Good News. Not the heavenly hosts, ten thousand angels gathered where a single one could lay waste to an entire world. Not the magi, following a star. No. The one I most often think of this time of year is the one least mentioned, not only in the story of Christ’s birth but also in much of the Gospels.
Poor, neglected Joseph.
It began so well for him, this man who was a descendant of King David and Abraham. Engaged to a young girl named Mary, who, as it happened, came to be with a child not his own.
A man in Joseph’s position in that culture and at that time could have done some pretty horrible things to an unfaithful fiancee. Could have had her publicly humiliated for certain. Stoned, if that had been his inclination.
Joseph, though, had nothing of the sort in mind. Matthew says that instead, Joseph “was minded to put her away privily.”
Quietly, so as not to cause Mary further burden. It is an example of Joseph’s righteousness according to Matthew, but I’ve always thought there was more to that decision than Joseph being a righteous man—a description, by the way, that is a supreme compliment in Jewish culture. I think it was just as much that he loved Mary, loved her deeply, in spite of what had happened.
But of course like most plans, Joseph’s did not line up exactly with God’s. He was visited in a dream by an angel who said Mary’s child was indeed the Holy Spirit’s, and the child shall be named Jesus.
Let that sit for a moment. The woman you were to marry—the woman you love—has betrayed you by getting herself pregnant by someone else. You’re brokenhearted and not a little bit angry. But then an angel visits you, scaring you half to death and telling you the most amazing and inexplicable story you’ve ever heard. What do you do?
Says Matthew: “And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
I often wonder what Joseph thought and felt the night of the Child’s birth—a Child not his own.
The naming of a Jewish boy was the father’s prerogative. Joseph did not name Jesus. In the genealogy of Christ that comprises much of Matthew’s first chapter, Joseph is rendered little more than an afterthought: “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
I wonder how it would make a Jewish man of that time feel, not being known as the father of a son but the husband of a wife.
Those early years must have been a frightening time. Humbling and confusing. Maybe even lonely.
After the wise men who visited had gone, the angel came again to warn that Herod was looking for the child. He told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Joseph obeyed.
The angel returned after Herod died to tell Joseph to return his family (not “your wife and son,” but “the Child and His mother”) to Israel. Joseph obeyed.
The angel then returned again, telling him to settle in the regions of Galilee.
When Christ was twelve, Mary and Joseph took him to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. Jesus remained behind to listen to an question the teachers. Mary and Joseph, no doubt being as tired and stressed as any parent, assumed the boy was somewhere in the caravan. They found him a day later. Joseph didn’t understand Jesus’s explanation.
I bet there was a lot of that.
I bet there was a mess of things that Joseph never really understood.
That is the last mention of Joseph in the Bible. It is assumed he died, but no one knows for sure. Maybe it’s fitting that a man portrayed as little more than a bit player in the greatest story ever told exits the stage in such a manner. No bows, no curtain calls. That sounds like Joseph. Play your part, then leave quietly.
I’m sure that’s not the way it all happened. I’m certain Joseph played a big part in the life of Christ. Wouldn’t be nice to have a glimpse of that, though? A single verse of Joseph the carpenter, showing the boy how to build a door or a wall.
Because in the end he spent his life in the greatest of pursuits. Joseph was a father. A step one in a heavenly sort of way, but a dad nonetheless. So here’s to him this Christmas. That unsung hero, the ultimate little guy. A man who did nothing more than what we all should do—ponder not what role we play in history’s long and winding tale, only obey, and take care of the little ones.