Don’t you wonder how the conversation went the next morning when Mary paid a visit to Joseph’s house? However she broke the news that an angel visited her and told her she was going to have a baby. There is no doubt she thought her life was over. What did Joseph say? … “You are what?! You did what? You expect me to believe that? You have got to think I’m crazy. This is insane. YOU are insane. It’s not part of our plan. This isn’t how we were supposed to start out. Why is this happening to us?”
We need to remember that Mary and Joseph were everyday people, who never thought their images would be etched in stain glass windows, living in a culture of strict rules and responsibilities. We need to remember that these people were young, and poor and at the mercy of two dominating systems: Jewish Law and Roman occupation. It is under these circumstances that Mary finds herself unmarried and pregnant. This is a crisis that would have destroyed lives and families. To understand how bad this news was, we need to understand something about Jewish marriage in the first century. Various texts render this passage differently. The NRSV describes Mary and Joseph as “engaged.” The NIV describes them as “pledged” to be married, while the KJV says Joseph was “espoused” to Mary. Regardless, the point is the bond between Mary and Joseph at this time was more than social. It was contractual. So legally Mary and Joseph were married but had not yet moved in with each other or consummated their union. But who cares? I mean who really needs Joseph for the Son of God to be born among us?
Often when we put our nativity scene together, we have to examine the figurines and decipher which one is the shepherd and which one is Joseph. In art, Joseph always appears to the strong silent type. Sometimes he looks more like a grandpa than a young groom. We don’t see much of him in any Gospel after the first two chapters.
Let’s face it we don’t know what do with Joseph. Maybe we are uncomfortable for him. He’s God’s understudy. Joseph complicates an already complicated concept of the virgin birth. Therefore it is easier for Joseph artists and song writers to sort of confuse him with one of shepherds and paint him behind a donkey.
One exception is the artwork found on the front of your bulletin (or screen) this is El Greco’s Joseph which portrays him as a vigorous young man with Jesus clinging to his legs. Joseph looks like a figure of trust and protection and this seems to be a more fair depiction of how Matthew understood. You see according to the prophets, without Joseph, Jesus can’t be the Messiah.
The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew is all about lineage and prophecy. Lineage was always patriarchal and the Messiah could only be an ancestor of King David. It is through Joseph that St. Matthew proves to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. If Matthew’s audience was going to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to know that he was from the House of David. Only Joseph could provide that lineage. Joseph is the proof the audience in Matthew needs to believe Jesus is the son of God. So the people of Matthew need Joseph.
Moreover Mary needs Joseph. She needs a partner. She needs someone who doesn’t think she’s crazy, because she was also visited by an angel and told that their life was going to change. Joseph decides to change the entire course of his life because he loves Mary. Only love could make someone say, “whatever trouble you are in, whatever controversy you are about to face, whatever people are going to say about you and me, I don’t care. I love you more than any scandal.” It takes a remarkable person to walk beside someone who carries the weight of the world.
The audience of Matthew needs Joseph, Mary needs Joseph and Jesus, the son of God needs Joseph. In this book, on fatherhood, the late Tim Russert once wrote:
The one thing that I have in my life experienced with my son is that both parents have to be nurtures. You can learn different things from your mom than you can learn from your dad. Charles Barkley, the NBA All Star great, said that his dad was not present as he grew up. And he said, “No one taught me how to be a man” and he had to learn himself and he made some mistakes on that path. I just think it’s worth the sacrifice.
There will always be another meeting to go to. There will always be another promotion. But there will never be another opportunity to raise your child. And it is such a blessing, such a gift, such a responsibility. And if you’re there at the creation, I think you have to be there every step of the way through their growth and development.
And so I, constantly, realize it’s a long road, it’s a long journey, and we can’t get there alone. And so I’m very open and find it quite necessary to ask for help and assistance and inspiration. And that comes in a very powerful way in the form of prayer. Jesus needs Joseph in the very human form of a Dad. (Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons in Daily Life).
Matthew’s audience, Mary, Jesus, and God all need Joseph. What if God’s plan had gone wrong? What would have happened if Joseph had said, “No! No way. Choose somebody else.” God calls on Joseph to take a role in history he had not planned or wanted, and he said “yes.” God needs Joseph to faithfully respond and have hope in a hopeless situation.
And finally, we need Joseph. Joseph, in a very quiet, subtle way teaches those of us who are adults, why we still need Christmas.
Christmas, we wrongly say, is for children. We adults need Christmas. We Mary and Josephs who live with expectations, hopes and love for our families. God comes along and breaks into our ordinariness and expects us to believe in something extra-ordinary. He expects us to respond to Jesus the same way Joseph did, and say, “yes, he can come into my life. I am willing to let him change my life forever.”
The only way to let Jesus be born in us this Christmas is by loving each other. And I don’t mean love in a whimsical, fleeting, hokey, pop-music way. I mean Love as a verb, in a profound, self-sacrificing, all giving, selfless love. The only way to experience Christmas is to accept that God loves you in this very profound way.
And why? Why did God do such a thing? Why did God risk it all?
Maybe it’s because of something like this…
There is a story about a young pregnant Korean woman named Bak Yoon, who was walking through the bitter cold on Christmas Eve in 1952 toward the home of a missionary friend where she knew she could find help. Her husband had recently been killed in the Korean War and she had no one else to turn to. A short way down the road from her friend’s house was a deep gully spanned by a bridge. As Bak Yoon stumbled forward birth pains suddenly overcame her. And realizing that she could go no further, she crawled under the bridge and there, alone gave birth to her baby boy.
Bak Yoon had nothing with her except her heavy clothes. One by one she removed all of the pieces and wrapped them around her tiny son. Then, feeling exhausted, she lay back in the snow beside her baby.
The next morning, her missionary friend drove across the bridge and suddenly her car sputtered out of gasoline. She got of the car and started to walk home when she heard a baby’s faint cry from beneath the bridge. She crawled under to investigate and there she found a tiny bundled baby, warm, but hungry, and young Bak Yoon, frozen in death. The missionary named the baby Soo Park and adopted him. He grew to be strong and healthy and never tired of hearing of the story of his beautiful mother and her love for him.
Twelve years later on Christmas Day, Soo Park asked if he could go to his mother’s grave. Beside the grave, Soo Parked asked his adopted mother to wait a little distance. She walked and waited. As the astonished missionary watched nearby, the boy began to take off his warm clothing piece by piece. “Surely he won’t take off all his clothing!” She thought. “He’ll freeze!” But the boy stripped himself of everything, laid it all on his mother’s grave and knelt naked and shivering in the snow. Then in deep sorrow he cried out to the mother he never knew, “Were you colder than this for me, my mother?” Knowing that, of course, she was. (From the Story, “Love Lays Bare,” found online at http://www.holytrinitynewrochelle.org)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16) He was that cold for us. He loves us that much.
Hail Mary full of grace, most honored are you among women.
Hail Joseph full of grace, most honored are you among men. Amen.