I think a lot about Joseph at Christmastime. Mary gets most of the headlines, and for good reason. She sings the song of the season, she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour. She holds out the hope of a world turned right-side up, where wrongs are righted, where injustice is undone, where promises are, finally, kept. She is the object of devotion, admiration, even reverence around the world. We sigh as we listen to songs wondering if she knew what her baby boy would become for the world. We hail her, full of grace. We call her the mother of God. Nobody would call Joseph the “father of God.” Obviously. That would be blasphemy. But I still think about Joseph.
Joseph doesn’t hang around very long in the gospel narratives. He receives three angelic visitations according to Matthew, one telling him to take Mary as his wife, one telling him to flee Herod’s madness, and the third telling him it’s safe to return. In each case, Joseph responds wordlessly. He did what the angel of the Lord commanded him…(He scandalously, obediently takes Mary to be his wife, even though the child she carries is not his… Well, at least not in that way). He got up, took the child and his mother and left for Egypt… He got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. Not a single word from Joseph’s mouth is recorded in the gospels. He takes his place in our nativity scenes, silent and compliant. We don’t hear much about him once we’re done with the Christmas story. Joseph disappears.
He’s referred to a few more times, to be sure. He is summoned to validate people’s rejection of Jesus in Nazareth. Is not this the carpenter’s son? How could anything good come out of such unimpressive stock? And Luke mentions him at the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry:
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli…
So it was thought. I suppose even Luke couldn’t bring himself to think of Joseph as Jesus’ real father. Joseph has a place in the story, but it’s on the periphery. Joseph did what the angel commanded… He got up… He fled… He returned… He kept his mouth shut, did what he was told…
When my kids were younger, I used to love to tell them that Jesus was an adopted kid. I thought maybe this would be a way they might connect with Jesus on a human level. Imagine—the Saviour of the world, the second person of the Trinity, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the Cosmic Christ, an adopted kid, just like you! I suppose it’s no more or less scandalous than the incarnation, but still. A pretty incredible thing to contemplate. My kids would smile when I told them this, but I don’t know if it made much of an impression on them. Kids smile to humour their fathers for all kinds of reasons.
I still think about Jesus as an adopted kid every year at Christmastime. And I think about Joseph as an adoptive father. I wonder what lies behind the silence of the gospel narratives. I wonder what Joseph thought about his son. I wonder if he was bewildered, frustrated, angry, apathetic, heartbroken, desperately proud, sick with worry. Probably all of the above and more. I wonder if Joseph always referred to Jesus as “Mary’s son.” I wonder if Joseph treated Jesus differently than his “real kids.” I wonder if he ever got annoyed at people who made that distinction. I wonder how Joseph loved this strange son of his. I wonder if it was hard for him, wonder how hard it was for him. I wonder if he resented being silent, compliant, part of the Christmas furniture.
I guess that’s the thing about silence—you can interpret it in all kinds of ways. I wish the gospels gave us more to go on than He did, he got up, he fled, he returned… He was Jesus’ father, or so it was thought.
Joseph isn’t there when Jesus dies. At least, not so far as we know. Mary’s tears flow at her dying son’s feet, but Joseph is nowhere to be found. Maybe he couldn’t bear what the world had done to his son, done with his son. Maybe he was drowning his sorrow in a bottle. Maybe he had distanced himself from his son. Maybe there was a difficult relationship behind it all, one that wouldn’t play well in the annals of piety and devotion. Maybe he was dead. We don’t know, of course. There’s so much that we don’t know. Joseph disappears.
For my part, I like to think of Joseph as still alive and close by the place called the Skull when his son groaned and took his last breath. Maybe just over the hill, out of immediate view, off to the side. This seems to be the right place for Jesus’ father, or so it was thought. I imagine a hand over a horrified mouth and a heart that heaved with pain as his son whispered, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” And I imagine his tears flowed for his precious son. There’s no way to know, of course. We do with silence what we will.