At this time of year Christians listen to the nativity narratives in the Gospel: the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. Jesus and Mary are the central characters of course, but Joseph of Nazareth, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus, is also a key figure.
Joseph, the man we read about in the Gospels, is an amazing man. His experience in the whole conception and birth narratives is not a sugary sweet, happy ever after one. In fact, he faces challenges that most ordinary men – and women – would baulk at and probably fail to endure.
Joseph is betrothed to Mary – a strong kind of engagement in Jewish society – and he looks forward to their marriage and to settling down with Mary and having a family, especially sons to carry on his family name and business. Instead, he hears the shattering news that Mary is pregnant – and he knows he is not the father. Again, in Jewish society of that time, this was a very serious matter: Joseph could publicly disown Mary and had rights for her to be punished, perhaps by stoning to death because of her apparent infidelity. Most ordinary men in that situation would be hurt, shattered, and furious to the point of seeking revenge. It would be hard to see how any love could survive such a betrayal. Joseph himself would be humiliated among his peers.
But Joseph is a special man, and he decides to break with Mary but quietly, perhaps making arrangements for her to go far away, and this is to protect her from gossip, shame, and legal punishment. His love for her has not died, but we would be wrong to think that he wasn’t suffering greatly. And added to this, Mary tells him she hasn’t slept with another man but the child in her womb is a miraculous gift – from God. This news might well have left him questioning whether Mary had lost her reason, and he could also suspect that she was trying to ‘pull a fast one on him’. Perhaps she wanted her child and also marriage to Joseph as well?
Joseph must have been in a confused and tortured state of mind. He then gets a vision from an angel who confirms Mary’s bizarre story. Does this revelation settle his dilemma and reassure him? I doubt it, and it’s worth pointing out that neither Mary or Joseph would have had much support from a deeply religious and conservative society. Maybe they had a trusted friend or perhaps even a spiritual advisor, but likely they had to hold this difficult knowledge inside themselves, unable to confide in anyone.
Joseph decides to put his trust in what Mary and the vision have told him – not an easy thing to do, and he must have been riddled with self doubts. And so he walks the walk with Mary all the way to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and then spends years raising this child who is not born of him. Did things get easier for him as time went by? We are not told but we can suspect that he had to struggle with his faith in God’s purpose for the rest of his life.
An amazing man indeed. Could you or I keep faith in God even in the midst of the most bizarre and troubling of circumstances? I suspect that without a thorough grounding in prayer and a strong relationship with God built over many years, it would be beyond most of us to endure. We look for logic and purpose – yet God’s ways are not our ways!
We can learn a lot from Joseph of Nazareth,