Joseph and the “Other” Christmas Story

December 23, 2013

In this morning’s gospel, we get the “other” Christmas story. As you all know, the story of the birth of Jesus is told in two of the gospels – Luke and Matthew. And in our minds, we often sort of combine them into one. We have nativity scenes with angels and shepherd and magi. But of course, Matthew is the one with the magi and no shepherds; Luke has shepherds but no magi. So in our celebrations, we sort of squash them together, but there are two different stories, and they each reveal a different aspect of the mystery of Christ’s birth.
This morning, we hear the story of Jesus’ nativity from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is a somewhat unusual as a figure of Advent, but in this story we can see a pattern of preparation. Joseph goes from confusion, to trust, to enlightenment. And if we can open it up a bit, the story is actually full of a great deal of tension and risk. As I’ve mentioned before, Matthew’s gospel focuses on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets, so his gospel more often uses aspects of Jewish religious life. That is especially true in this morning’s passage.

In the practice of the time, marriage had two steps. The first was the betrothal, and this established the legal partnership. Once you were betrothed, you were actually husband and wife legally. It was not unusual at the time for marriage to be arranged for people as young as thirteen. However, then the parties would wait for a few years to complete the marriage ceremony. During the interval, there was always a risk that something would go wrong. If the wife got pregnant before the marriage, then there were severe penalties under the law. By the time of Mary and Joseph, this law was probably not often applied, but it was still a situation of great shame.
This leads us to one of the more overlooked passages. “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” We often combine these two characteristics – Joseph is a righteous man and unwilling to disgrace her. We think that he doesn’t want to disgrace her because he is righteous. But that’s not right. Being righteous meant that he followed the law, and he was serious about following the law. And the law said that he should make Mary’s pregnancy public. The law demanded that he shame her. The demands of the law were in conflict with the love and mercy of God. Joseph decides to follow a path of mercy and not judgment.

In that moment, God reveals himself to Joseph through the angel in his dream. This is where he is invited to trust. He was already inclined to be merciful, now he is invited to embrace God’s work. As the foster father of the child, he is brought deeply into the process. The angel tells him “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.” This naming is also really important. Way back in Genesis, Adam participates with God in the creation of the animals by giving the animals their names. And by participating with God, Adam assumes responsibility as steward over God’s creation. By naming the child, Joseph takes a role in his nativity and accepts responsibility as steward over God’s own Son.

In most reflections on the Christmas stories, we focus on Mary’s reaction – and that’s a very good thing. We could do a lot worse than emulating Our Lady. But this morning, we get another window into those closest to Jesus. We reflect on Joseph, a good father who struggles to trust God and to do what is right. Joseph reads his Bible and he follows the law. But he also sees the God of love and mercy behind the rules and the law, and he tries to be faithful to God’s mission. Once again people emerge in these stories who are not really very different from us. Joseph is confused about what God is asking him to do, and God meets him in that confusion and asks him for trust. Finally, God reveals everything to him.

This is the pattern of Advent. We go about our lives trying to do what is right and we are struggling to trust God. In the middle of our confusion, God meets us and invites us to trust. God is at work bringing all things into redemption. This work began in the manger in Bethlehem, but it is going on today. And just like Joseph was invited into that work, we are invited to be servants of God helping in our own ways to bring Jesus into the world.

– Michael Tuck+

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