Thought for the week - 18 December
There was once a preacher who asked his congregation if any one of them was perfect. "Put up your hand," he said, "if you think you are perfect." A quiet little man in the congregation put up his hand. The preacher said to him, "So, you think you are perfect, do you?" "No," he replied, "I'm speaking on behalf of the wife's first husband."
Obviously the man lived in the shadow of his predecessor, his wife's first husband.
There are those who live in the shadow of someone else; those whose importance is often overlooked because of that other person. History is full of such people: those whose importance is overlooked because they are in the shadow, or in the background. And yet very often they are the people who have really changed the course of history.
It strikes me that one such person is Joseph, who seems to figure in the Christmas story in something of a minor way. Yes, of course he is in the nativity plays travelling with Mary to Bethlehem. Yes, of course he is in the crib, standing behind Mary and the Christ-child. But so often he is a figure in the background, a figure in the shadows.
Why is this? I suppose it is because we are so used to conflating the nativity narratives in the gospels. We don't look at each gospel in its own right. We put them all together and come up with the Christmas story, the nativity play, assuming it is all of a piece. And when we do that, it is only natural that Luke's nativity story takes centre stage. The chief actor, as it were, the central player in the story is our Lady, the mother of our Lord. She it was who said "Be it unto me according to your word." She it was who was chosen to be the mother of God, Theotokos as the eastern Orthodox Church names her. She and the Christ-child are centre stage, and quite rightly so. In the history of western art there are thousands upon thousands of pictures of the Virgin and Child. There are, of course, also many pictures of the Holy Family, but once again Joseph is in the background. He is an important character, but somehow on the edge.
Many years ago I asked some Sunday school children if they could tell me who Joseph was. The answer I was expecting was the Joseph of the Old Testament. The children answered, the father of Jesus. They were right, and I was rather shocked that I had overlooked that Joseph. It's easy to do, because quite rightly we think of God himself as being the father of Jesus. Joseph can quite easily be neglected and pushed into the shadows. Important though he is in the Christmas story, he is not that important.
The writer of St. Matthew's gospel would have been shocked to think of Joseph as someone in the shadows, a bit player as it were. In Matthew's gospel Joseph takes centre stage. Without Joseph there could be no Christmas story. Joseph is of crucial importance in the divine plan of salvation. According to Matthew the whole significance of Jesus centres on his claim to be the direct descendant of David. The promised Messiah was to be born of the house of David. And so in the first chapter of his gospel Matthew traces Joseph's descent from David.
Having done this Matthew goes on to record how the birth of the Messiah, the son of David, came about. "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way." And the central character is Joseph. He is betrothed to Mary who is found to be with child. The situation for Mary was serious. Joseph could have brought her before a court of law to determine who father was and she could have been sentenced to death by stoning. But Joseph being a kindly and righteous man, decides to dismiss her quietly and so save from public disgrace. "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. "
That could, I suppose have been an end to it, and we would have heard no more of Mary, let alone Jesus. But now the story gets exciting, in an understated sort of way. Unlike St. Luke's gospel where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in broad daylight, in Matthew's gospel the angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a dream and says, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,"
which means, "God is with us."
Joseph does as the Lord had commanded him and takes Mary as his wife. The rest, as we say, is history. But what if Joseph had ignored the vision? What if he had still resolved to dismiss Mary? Or, if we go along with Luke's gospel, what if Mary had not said, "Be it unto me according to thy word?" Well.....
Joseph, then, far from being the shadowy figure at the back of the crib, is of central importance to the Christmas story. It is through Joseph that Messiah's lineage is traced back to David.
Names are important. Jesus is the Messiah, the son of David from whom Joseph is descended. And in Matthew's gospel the significance of Jesus is spelled out in other names. Joseph, is to call the child Jesus. Jesus, is of course Joshua. And it was Joshua who led his people into the promised land. Jesus is also Emmanuel, which means "God with us." What a wonderful name that is, and one whose significance we often overlook - Emmanuel - God with us. That's what Christmas is really all about. At Christmas we have the assurance that God is on our side, that he is with us and not against us.
So you see Joseph is really crucial and central to the Christmas story. When you look at the crib and see the figure of Joseph looking lovingly at the Christ child, remember the part that Joseph plays in the story. Remember also that there are always those people who at first sight may not appear to be of the greatest importance, but who are crucial and necessary for the carrying out of God's plan of salvation.
St. Luke's gospel focuses on our Lady and the central part that she plays in the gospel of redemption. Matthew focuses on the part that Joseph plays in that same plan of redemption. Both are crucial and necessary. For God to bring about his promised salvation human co-operation was necessary. For Mary to say "Be it unto me according to thy word", and for Joseph to do all that the angel of the Lord commanded him." We too have our own part to play in God's plan of salvation and none of us are unimportant, no matter how much we might think we are in the shadows or on the sidelines - for we have that assurance of Emmanuel, God is with us.