I know this is not a fair question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Had I asked you five minutes ago, to tell me the story of the birth of Jesus, my hunch is it would have gone something like this:
One day an angel appeared to a young girl and told her she with be the mother of God’s son, even though she was not yet married. Before her marriage, she and her fiancé travelled to the town where his family came from. Because there were so many people in town at the time, the only place available for them to stay was the stable at one of the local inns. It is there, she gave birth to her baby boy, whom they named Jesus. After the birth of the baby, some shepherds found them, and told them they had been instructed by some angels to look for the baby.
You get the picture.
The story of the birth of Jesus that is imprinted on our minds and in our hearts, is the story that Luke tells us. That’s the story of carols and hymns, stained glass windows, great works of art, and countless Christmas cards. That’s the story we think of when we think of Christmas. That’s the story we will hear in a few days’ time.
Today’s Gospel is in many ways Matthew’s ‘annunciation.’ When we speak of the annunciation we think of course of the Gospel of Luke and his account of the angel appearing to Mary. But for Matthew the angel appears to Joseph – in a dream. “Joseph, take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus. And he did as the angel commanded him.” But he did a lot more than this. This remarkable man became a true father to Jesus.
And this is enormously important because as Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in years’ he slowly came to understand God as Father. In the Old Covenant God was ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’, ‘Governor’. But for Jesus God was above all ‘Father’. And he came to understand his mission as opening the way for us to have the sort of relationship with God which is nearest to that of a father and a son. But for Jesus to have come to understand and use this analogy he must have had a wonderfully good and close relationship with Joseph.
I think though that pastorally, this poses a problem. The word ‘father’ arouses feelings which in everyone’s life are necessarily colored by personal experience. Martin Luther for example had a father who would beat him for the smallest offence. He once told a friend that whenever he said the Lord’s Prayer he would think of his own father, who was hard, unyielding and relentless. ‘I cannot help but think of God that way.’
Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.
Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.