Joseph often strikes me as the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Of course the greatest hero is the Christ child, the Incarnate One who enters our world as a helpless babe for our salvation. And there is Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message with the words, “I am the servant of the Lord” even though the thing asked of her meant the possibility of being seen as an unwed mother and of having been unfaithful to Joseph, her betrothed. It is she who carries this child, who births him in difficult circumstances, and whose own heart will also be pierced as she one day beholds her crucified son. In most of our Christmas carols, however, Joseph gets less “air time” than the angels, the wise men, the shepherds or even the mythical drummer boy!
Joseph is known for what he did not do. He did not denounce Mary or even put her away quietly. He took her as wife and, to leave the matter beyond question, did not have relations with her (a model of the possibility of restraint in our sexualized culture!).
What he did do is obey the angelic command and believe the declaration that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he would save his people from sin. His belief and obedience carried them to Bethlehem, to Egypt, by roundabout ways to Nazareth. He raised the young boy, likely teaching him carpentry because Jesus is referred to both as the carpenter’s son and the carpenter whose father was Joseph. He and Mary anxiously searched for him after their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and Jesus stayed behind to converse with the religious teachers. This is the last we hear of Joseph alive.
Joseph, to me, represents everyday faithfulness, the behind the scenes kind of faithfulness that is usually only noticed by its absence. He does what needs to be done, whether finding an alternative to guest rooms, getting the family out of danger, and supporting a family and mentoring a son in a physically exacting and demanding trade. Carpentry likely included construction work as well as craftsmanship. And one also wonders if he had a role in teaching his son the scriptures, perhaps in conjunction with synagogue life.
It strikes me that Joseph might be the kind of hero we need to pay more attention to in our celebrity-driven culture, both outside and inside the church. We often seem to want to spend more time giving adulation to these celebrities, or if we are particularly ambitious, trying to become one of them. Joseph’s life calls us to a different path, the path of resolute but quiet belief worked out in love for those around us, obedience to God’s commands even when these don’t make sense (something that happens sooner or later for anyone who follows Christ), and the diligent stewardship of what is entrusted to us.
Joseph often seems a “bit player” in the Christmas story. Yet without him, there would be no story. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Isn’t it the case that the people who have had the greatest impact in our lives are usually not celebrities but likely those whose names will never appear in history books? Who has been a Joseph to you? And for whom can you be a Joseph?