I wonder if we were to ask most people who were the central characters of the Christmas story, particularly the nativity. Certainly they would answer, baby Jesus, Mary, the Archangel, the angelic host, and the shepherds. They may incorrectly include the 3 wise men, who come later in the Christmas story, and they may fictionally include the farm yard animals, including a donkey, and the inn keeper. But I wonder how many would actually think of Joseph as a character central to the Christmas story.
Matthew, as gospeller, had a problem. Since he was writing to Jewish Christians, he could not speak, as Luke does, of the significantly of the role of Mary in this amazing work of God in the Christmas story. Jews were, at that time, unable to accept the witness of women. So Matthew wrote his account of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph, rather than Mary. And it is a good thing that he did, because it causes us to stop and realise the significant part that Joseph, a man, has to play in enabling God’s work of salvation.
March 19 has been the day set apart for the celebration of Joseph of Nazareth, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is listed in the Calendar of the old 1978, An Australian Prayer Book, sometimes called the green wattle prayer book. I don’t have any memory of ever celebrating this feast. I noticed, however, in the new 1995, A Prayer Book for Australia, that amongst the Holy Days is the inclusion of Joseph amidst all those services recognising Mary.
There has been a shift in the new prayer book lifting Joseph from one of the minor Saints to a red letter day Saint, and not before time. Joseph stands as a significant male in this story of God bringing about salvation to this world he made. Joseph stands as a model that faith is the domain of men.
We could be a little surprised that faith and men can be spoken together in the same sentence. My experience has been, that it is so rare, that as soon as we come across a man of faith we want to ordain him. Only 39% of the congregations in Australia are men. There are various reasons for why this might be the case, but, ultimately, I think, it is because we have down-played the role of men in faith – leaving faith and religion to the domain of women. As much as I am a feminist, believing in the equal rights for women, what one of our theological students called gender egalitarian, I am as much an androgenist, reclaiming those things which belong to men and have been forgotten or lost.
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, Jesus’ adoptive father, we are told, is a man of character, and this character is borne out of his faith in God.
We know this, because after he had become engaged to Mary, they discovered that she was pregnant. This was a discovery as much on Mary’s part as it was on Joseph’s.
A few years ago my brother’s engagement came to an end and his ex-fiancé sued him for breach of contract. I didn’t think this still happened, but it is an indication of the level of binding of the engagement between Joseph and Mary.
Like any man, however, Joseph, knowing he had not had sexual relations with Mary, concluded that the baby was not his. Mary was damaged goods. Mary had, it was assumed, been adulterous. The cost of that in their day would have been, as it still is in some places under Islamic Sharia Law, to be put to death, most likely by stoning. But the mark of his character is not that he denies, or pretends, this thing has not happened. Rather, that he plans to bring to an end the commitment in a way that would not shame Mary.
Joseph’s mark of character, here, is not a result of his being too, soft. Rather, we are told, he thought about this hard and fast. Another way of translating his resolution is his agonising about this. Joseph’s mark of character is a result of his faithfulness to God.
During his agonising, while he is working out what to do, he has a dream, where a divine messenger appears to him and instructs him to continue to take Mary as his wife, because the child was of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit. His response was one of trust in God, faithfulness, he does as God commanded him to, through the angel.
I can’t help wondering how differently it would be if Joseph wasn’t a man of character defined by faith in God. There is no doubt that he took Jesus as his own, it is Joseph who names him. There is no doubt that Jesus was marked by Joseph’s parenting, Jesus used the name he would have called Joseph to describe the invitation of relationship we have with our heavenly Father, Abba. Would Jesus have grown to fulfil his part in the salvation work of God if he had not had a father who was also a person of faith?
One thing that I can’t help noticing is that those children who continue to participate in the life of the church are those whom both parents are actively involved in nurturing their relationship with God and participating in the life of the Church. Rarely will we see a child come to faith without either of their parents being people of faith. We may see children continuing in their faith if the mother is actively nurturing her faith – but if this is without the father, then, perhaps, only those children who connect most greatly to the mother will do so. But if the father and the mother are both nurturing their faith, then the children will grow to see that this is normal, and are more likely to continue in the faith journey themselves.
And I can’t help wondering whether, because the Church has placed so much emphasis on Mary, that we have neglected the place of males within the life of faith of families and church.
The story of Joseph’s part in the events of Christmas encourage me to have a focus on the ministry of men. So we encourage our men’s breakfast, our blokes’ night out, not neglecting any of the ministries we have to women. If we can enable men to find faith, then, I suspect, we have a great opportunity to enable God to build men of character and we have a greater chance of getting the whole family involved in nurturing their faith and participating in the life of the Church.