Annual Christmas Wars broke out this week. I was thinking for a few days we may get through a Christmas without the annual squabble about who owns Christmas. Set off by a grandparent who went to their grandchild’s kinder Christmas concert and was dismayed/outraged that some words of religious carols were changed and the rest were secular songs. Peter Dutton jumped in and said we have to fight to defend Christmas from the secularists and politically correct who would wish us to greet our neighbours with a cheery ‘Happy Festive Season’ to this time of the years and it was on again!
But lets just get on with proclaiming and living and celebrating the faith and not get distracted too much. Today the church throughout the world honors Joseph and his courageous, faith filled response of making space in his life for God. For him it specifically means making space for the startling work of the Holy Spirit who it seems has made his beloved pregnant. Hmm… a generous and faith-filled man by any account!
If it were not the Holy Bible we were reading we would say he is cast in the classic position of shame and humiliation…what Shakespeare called a cuckold, some other person being the sower of the seed. There is no greater act of being made irrelevant, overlooked, consigned to the margins. For Joseph there was a high price to pay to make space for God and to put his hand up to be part of the Christmas Story. Any even cursory investigation of the practices of first century Judaism will reveal for Joseph there would have been much public shame and humiliation if he wanted to be part of the Christmas story . We do well to honor him.
It is well known that the Protestant church has had a deeply ambivalent relationship with Mary, mother of Jesus. Only in the past decade or so have we even been able to acknowledge her as a deeply devout, role model of discipleship. And it would be fair to say that the Protestant church has had an even more marginal relationship with Joseph. How is it that not just one, but both parents of Jesus ever got so marginalized in the Christian church, especially the Protestant church?
Poor old Joseph hasn’t exactly captured the public imagination – for instance in this season of carols everyone else – shepherds, wise men, angels, even the cattle who are lowing and never appear in the Biblical story at all get a look in. But there are very few advent/Christmas hymns that even mention Joseph.
He does have his feast day. Not that anyone remembers it. It is March 19, and gets swamped by St Patrick’s Day (March 17). St Joseph has been more important to Catholics than to Protestants and Pope Paul VI gave him an extra feast day on 1st May, St Joseph the Worker. This was, in part at least, to counteract the momentum of the Communists who used the day to mark the rights of workers.
But Joseph does get a run each year A in the lectionary – in fact the first gospel – (first in placement in our bible, not chronologically) gives him the central role in the story of the birth of Jesus. Luke gives priority to Mary but Matthew to Joseph. Yet, despite this place of honor in the first gospel we find in our Christian scriptures we are left pondering what ever did happen to him to make him so marginal down the centuries?
There are a couple of reasons the church has overlooked Joseph – and he is easily overlooked. Shooed off to the margins the way an embarrassing uncle is. Unassuming but decent, righteous. Mostly the church wanted to make Jesus Son of God, eternal unbegotten light from light, transcendent preexistent second person of the Trinity more than son of Joseph.
There is not a lot of detail about him and when he does appear in the scriptures he is reduced to silence (he never utters a word in the entire gospels).
What the first Christians were dealing with was how to present and identify all God had done in Jesus. They struggled with the parental line of Jesus once they had time to reflect on these things and realized they would begin to matter more and more as Jesus evidently was not returning quite as soon as they were expecting to wrap up the world as we know it and put an end to these sorts of quibbles.
And how this works in Matthew’s gospel it works is not really something that excites us modern western more individually inclined folk . In Matthew it is all about the ancient prophecies of a Messiah coming through the royal lineage. All of that was contained in that long eye glazing list of begets in the opening verses of Matthew. But look into it and there is a massive act of making room for God going on. For Matthew it worked liked this. Jesus to be Messiah had to be Son of David. That was the ancient prophecy and Matthew is nothing if not dedicated to showing Jesus was the fulfiller of all that had been prophesied God would be doing to save God’s people. And clearly there was a promise to raise up the great Saviour from the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” as we read a few weeks ago – and other Davidic prophecies. So Matthew goes right back to Abraham, goes through David, generation after generation until our eyes glaze over and finally he and is getting up to Jesus.
“And Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1: 15-16).
At the last and crucial moment, Joseph is the husband of Mary, rather than the father of Jesus. Matthew goes on to explain this in the passage we heard read today: through the Holy Spirit Mary conceived a child while remaining a virgin.
So the stunning conclusion…Joseph who is of the line of David and hence could be seen to fulfil the Davidic Messianic prophecies is not really the father of Jesus at all. Rather, Joseph adopts Jesus into his family, into his family tree – royal line of David to fulfill prophecies, and into his life. He chooses to become Jesus father. He chooses to make space for this extraordinary thing God is doing in the flesh of humanity. I think Joseph could have a far more significant role in modern society as more fathers and mothers are parenting children who not their biological offspring, but are parenting them through an act of the will. Joseph would be a wonderful saint for blended families, separated families, families under duress, families struggling with tension and scandal. For all for whom Christmas is not the happy family experience. I was sitting next to one at the Carol service last Sunday night. Someone who is neither a believer nor a church goer. At one point she turned to me and said, “We do not all like Christmas you know”.
And this story of Joseph teaches us to pay more attention to our dreams, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts as well as our minds. He heard the words Fear Not – words of Christmas because the fear not comes from God’s action and closeness to us. Words and a dream that gave him the courage and faithfulness to choose that his life would be open to receive this inconvenient God, this vulnerable God and this finally redeeming and transforming God. Morton Kelsey wrote about Joseph—and us: “Sometimes our religious experience needs to displace our conventional human wisdom. Saints are those who follow their deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense”.
Remembering how God chose a humble young woman and a carpenter to provide the nurture for Christ Jesus, let us seek the special blessing of God upon the ordinary Christians who serve unnoticed and often unappreciated in the community.