Kurt Vonnegut said once, “People don’t come to church for preachments, … (they come) to daydream about God.”
In the season of Advent, our dreams shift to the Promised One who entered the world the same way every other human enters, by being birthed by a life-giving mother and arriving wet and wide-eyed, voicing a full-throated primal scream announcing his arrival. The Jesus we’ve come to adore entered the world naked and vulnerable just like every other person who’s ever lived.
Did you know there are two versions of the Christmas story in the New Testament? Often we feel compelled to fuse them together, or we try to, in order to harmonize the two divergent stories into one story.
But try as we might, they really are two different stories about the same event and they resist our efforts to meld them together. Whatever else he might have been, we can be sure Matthew was not a novelist. Of the four gospel writers, Matthew is the driest and the most plodding. So it’s Luke’s story we hear in our brains.
First, there’s Luke’s rich tapestry of a story. That’s the story from which we hear the angel Gabriel announce the news to Mary that she’d been chosen by God to deliver the Christ-child into the world. There is a dignified, regal beauty to Luke’s version because there are such strong contrasts between Jesus’ divine nature and his earthly entrance into the world.
To be honest, it’s Luke’s story everyone likes. In Luke’s gospel, Mary takes center stage and the spotlight is focused on the simplicity and purity of this young woman-child chosen to be Jesus’ mother in the world.
In contrast, Matthew’s version of the story is unexpectedly brief, like a story a man might tell. Just one paragraph in length, and a short paragraph at that. Just one scene. Just the barest of facts. An angel appears, but appears this time to Joseph and not to Mary. There’s no dialogue between them because Joseph utters not a word. Silence in the face of such enormity!
In Matthew’s version, the angel doesn’t announce what is going to happen in order to somehow solicit Joseph’s cooperation. No mention is made at all of the meaning of the events that are about to transpire other than the angel tells Joseph what has happened and says Mary is going to have this baby. He’s also told, “Here’s what you are supposed to do in response: Name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20b-21).
Joseph is told how to respond, but he is not given the choice of cooperating or not. He is simply told to play out his part without questioning whether any of this really needed him in order to happen.
If this were a play, then Joseph is no more than a bit player with no lines. He’s an extra; he’s visible but has no lines. We never hear what he’s thinking or what’s on his mind. (Is he too feeble to talk? Does he have an opinion about this news he dreams in his sleep?)
Joseph is the mystery man who stands next to Mary and Jesus in the first few family portraits. But he is quickly airbrushed out of the picture sometime before John baptized Jesus and he’s never heard from again. His early disappearance from the gospels feeds the notion that he was much older than Mary at the time of their marriage.
What stands out truthfully in this story is the realization that Joseph was every bit as chosen to play out this role in Jesus’ life as Mary was in her role. We lionize Mary for being the girl that carried the Christ-child in her womb and who suckled the baby its first meal and for being present on Golgotha to watch him suffer.
But in many, many ways, the role Joseph played made the story of Jesus come to be. Joseph sheltered the family and saw to it that Jesus had a place in the world.
What character of man would stick with a young, pregnant fiancé? While we might be tempted to say that Joseph may have considered his advanced age and calculated his chances of finding another young girl willing to marry him, maybe it ran deeper than that.
Joseph was a mature man who knew a thing or two about life by then – knowing about things a man half his age hadn’t yet learned. Joseph also knew Mary’s heart and knew that she was a young thing who was scared and needed him more than ever.
Maybe he understood the way the world worked for young, pregnant girls who were not married and understood that her life was about to end because she would be destined to live on the streets in order to support her son. Maybe neither one of them would survive. Maybe there would be no one who would act kindly toward them and they would be innocent lambs among ravenous wolves. But obviously Joseph had some special quality in him that made him the perfect partner for Mary.
According to Matthew’s gospel, Joseph’s commitment to Mary and the unborn child was as crucial to the story as Mary’s willingness to share her womb. Jesus’ old man, scandalized at his upcoming wedding party to this very youthful girl, had enough golden maturity to see beyond the conventional wisdom and he let his heart lead him.
Joseph, getting married to a young woman with child, was made of the right stuff and stayed the course. In the end, he gave Jesus both a name and a family. That’s what love does. Joseph let go of his proprietary rights and ignored the social mores. His sense of right and wrong got lost in the divine shuffle of real life and his righteousness gave way to God’s.
Joseph was the perfect partner for God in finding a family to raise God’s boy. If Mary was the wind beneath Jesus’ wings, then Joseph was the ground on which he learned to stand.
My friend, Larry Bethune, confesses wisely that, “if there’s ever a time men reach the end of their wits, it’s when a baby is born. Regardless of all the modern ways dads have been (ingeniously) included in the labor and delivery of their children, (in the end) we’re still mainly spectators.”
Jesus had the strong image of his father burned into his soul. We can thank his heavenly Father for that and now we can thank his earthly Daddy, too.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).