One of the wonderful things about the Gospels of the New Testament, is that we have four of them. Because each of the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in his own, very distinctive way. Often they recount what is recognisably the same incident, but do so highlighting completely different features within it – just as different newspapers will sometimes spin the same story very differently. But taken together they give us a wonderfully rounded picture of who Jesus was, and why Jesus mattered, both in their own day and for us, now.
So, for example, people are often very surprised to discover that only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention the birth of Jesus at all – and when they do, they give us very different versions of that event. Matthew and Luke are agreed that Mary was a virgin and conceived the child Jesus, the promised Messiah, by the Holy Spirit – and also that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But beyond this, their two accounts are completely different – despite the fact that the venerable tradition of the primary school nativity play has done a wonderful job in weaving them all together, plus adding details of its own – including the starring role often played by the innkeeper’s wife (who isn’t mentioned anywhere!).
So, for example, it is Luke who tells us that the Holy Family came from Nazareth and were obliged to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem to be registered, and that when Mary’s child was born, he was laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. And it is in Luke that shepherds out in the fields are startled by the sudden appearance of an angel, who summons them to come and see the newly born child.
Now compare that with the version that I read a moment ago from St Matthew, which has no mention of inns, or mangers, or shepherds. And whereas in Luke’s version it is Mary who is very much centre stage, in Matthew it is to Joseph rather than Mary that the angelic messenger comes, telling him that he should take Mary as his wife, even though she is carrying a child who is not his own.
And it is absolutely characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel that this message is given to Joseph in a dream. (Luke’s angels have a habit of materialising suddenly and dramatically in bodily form, scaring the pants off the human beings to whom they appear. In Matthew, angelic messengers are much more civilised, and tend to deliver their messages through dreams, when the recipient is safely asleep). And it is also absolutely characteristic of Matthew to underline in triplicate the fact that the birth of Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
Matthew was writing very much with a Jewish readership in mind, which is why he constantly and overtly, ties the events of his gospel to Old Testament quotations and prophecy. And you may have spotted that he does this in today’s reading, too: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us).
But let’s stick with the character of Joseph for a bit, since he features so prominently in our Gospel reading today. I have often felt that Joseph gets a bit of a raw deal in the great outworking of the purposes of God, partly because – let’s face it – he is rather marginal to the central event of the incarnation. After all, it is Mary who is the God-bearer; and it is Mary upon whom the spotlight falls in most Christian iconography and artistic representations of the birth of Christ.
Joseph’s destiny was to be the husband who looks on silently as his wife gives birth to a child who is not his own; and he then fades back into the shadows again, eventually vanishing without trace. I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Joseph, just as many of us may have spared a thought for the late Prince Philip: an extremely able and gifted man who must once have imagined that he had a glittering career of his own to look forward to, but who was destined to become the constitutional appendage to a wife whose role and authority was always going to overshadow his own. Not an easy career choice or calling, one suspects.
But the very little that we are told about Joseph in the Gospels does reveal him to be an unusual man by the standards of his day. Today’s reading tells us explicitly, Joseph was a ‘just’ man. He was a man of goodness; he was godly. His reaction to the discovery that his betrothed was carrying a child that was clearly not his, is quite remarkable in a culture in which a woman was regarded as the property of the principal man in her life (whether father or husband). If branded as an adulteress, she would not only have brought shame on her family; she could have been stoned to death.
And yet, as our reading tells us, ‘Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.’ Far from being concerned for his own loss of face as the cuckolded husband-to-be, he is moved solely by a desire to protect her from public disgrace. And we know, too, that he did indeed bring up Jesus as his own; because the adult Jesus was known in his home town of Nazareth as the carpenter’s son.
There is a beautiful little poem about the nativity of Christ by Ron Klug, called ‘Joseph’s Lullaby’, in which Joseph, looking down upon the newly born child sleeping in the manger, says this:
Sleep now, little one.
I will watch while you and your mother sleep.
I wish I could do more.
This straw is not good enough for you.
Back in Nazareth I’ll make a proper bed for you
Of seasoned wood, smooth, strong, well-pegged.
A bed fit for a carpenter’s son.
Just wait till we get back to Nazareth.
I’ll teach you everything I know,
You’ll learn to use the cedarwood, eucalyptus and fir.
You’ll learn to use the drawshave, axe and saw.
Your arms will grow strong, your hands rough – like these.
You will bear the pungent smell of new wood
And wear shavings and sawdust in your hair.
You’ll be a man whose life centres
On hammer and nails and wood.
But for now, sleep, little Jesus, sleep.
You’ll be a man whose life centres on hammer and nails and wood. And how true that will prove to be, although in a way that Joseph could never have imagined; hope and tragedy woven together in that simple image, with its foretaste of the crucifixion.
In the roles that tradition, history, and Almighty God have entrusted to them, Joseph and Mary have some interesting things in common. Both of them are faithful to God, and they both have their parts to play in a story that is far greater than either of them. To be chosen by God is a blessing but can be a mixed blessing. Joseph must raise a child who is not his own; Mary must live to see her child grow to adulthood, only to die the most terrible and tortuous of deaths. But nevertheless they both embrace their God-given destinies, and do so supporting each other throughout.
I would like to crave your indulgence to end with another short poem, which is a wonderful and heart-warming testimony to the love and steadfastness of Joseph as seen through the eyes of Mary, his wife. The poem is called O Sapientia, and is by the poet Madeleine L’Engle.
It was from Joseph first I learned
Of love. Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
Me from his house; but, unafraid,
He put me not away from him
(O God-sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.
The Child’s first cry came like a bell;
God’s word aloud, God’s word in deed.
The angel spoke: so it befell,
And Joseph with me in my need.
O Child whose father came from heaven,
To you another gift was given,
Your earthly father, chosen well.
With Joseph I was always warmed
And cherished. Even in the stable
I knew that I would not be harmed.
And, though above the angels swarmed,
Man’s love it was that made be able
To bear God’s love, wild, formidable,
To bear God’s will, through me performed.
What a wonderful image. It was the love of Joseph that enabled Mary to bear the love of God. In the same way, the tasks that God has entrusted to each and every one of us, are also tasks that we are called to share.