We became parents for the first time last January when we adopted our three year old daughter. She’s full of energy, has a great sense of humour and loves David Tennant. She also growls “argh” when she’s annoyed (just like her dad), plays drums on her legs (just like her dad), and shouts “Come on Bradford!” when the football’s on (just like her dad!).
Jesus’ genealogy hangs on Joseph – a man with whom he has no genealogical link. Joseph is the gateway through which Jesus descends from David, Isaac and Abraham, from the tribe of Judah, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies – yet this bloodline is not one that they physically share.
I’ve always thought Joseph’s role in the Christmas story is a bit underplayed. Much is made of Mary, of her brave decision to do God’s will and be mother to his son – whereas Joseph tends to get sidelined. But if God chose Mary to be Jesus’ mother, didn’t he choose Joseph to be Jesus’ adoptive father just as much?
When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he could have had her stoned to death for adultery (an avenue that some of his ancestors took very readily!) – but he didn’t. Why not? Because he was a good man. Instead, he planned to divorce her quietly – giving God the space to send an angel in a dream and invite him to be part of the plan.
I have a friend and colleague who’s been talking about this recently in school assemblies, wondering what would happen if those involved in the Christmas story said no when God invited them to work with him. He talks about how God will always find another way, how it’s us who miss out on working with God when things go ahead without us.
I don’t disagree – I’m sure if Joseph had said no, divorcing Mary and leaving her with no protector or condemning her to death, God would have found a way to work things out. But I’m much more interested in that moment of vulnerability that God puts himself in, in order to work with us. When Mary goes to Joseph, carrying God’s unborn son inside her, for that moment everything hangs on his response.
Joseph’s decision to marry Mary and be Jesus’ father is as life-changing for him as Mary’s decision is for her. To all intents and purposes, he was Jesus’ father – their community assumed the paternity was his and Jesus was known as the carpenter’s son.
But God also honours Joseph’s decision and involves him fully as parent and protector to Jesus. It is Joseph who is visited by an angel in a dream, telling him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to protect them from Herod – and Joseph obeys, fleeing in the middle of the night to a strange country and resettling his family there. Similarly, he obeys just as quickly when another angel appears, telling him Herod is dead and that it is safe to return home. Following the path he’s chosen, Joseph willingly uproots himself and turns his life upside down at God’s command to look after his family and protect his son – isn’t that what any good father would do?
There isn’t a lot of information about the role Joseph played in Jesus’ life beyond the Christmas story – but there is more than I’d realised. The stories in Luke 2 of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple and receiving Simeon’s blessing show a family that takes their place within a community. And there’s an easily missed but quite lovely verse at Luke 2: 40, giving a picture of how God worked in partnership with Joseph and Mary as Jesus grew: “The little child began to grow up. He became stronger and wiser, and God’s blessings were with him.”
Our daughter has no genetic link to either myself or my husband. Yet there are many ways (increasingly more and more) in which she resembles us. Some of these are good, others are less so, but they all reflect the impact that we have on forming her character.
All of which raises an interesting question about the decision God made when he chose Mary and Joseph as Jesus’ parents. For if Jesus is fully divine, then his Godly character must already have been formed and present throughout his earthly life. But if he is also fully human, then he must have been open to the influences of those with whom he had significant relationships. Just how much of an influence on the development of Jesus’ character did Mary and Joseph have?
When the adult Jesus reaches out to women, valuing them as people in a culture that regards them as property, he reveals the characteristics of his heavenly father. But he also follows the example of his earthly father who, finding himself in a position of power over a vulnerable and culturally disgraced pregnant woman, showed mercy and provided protection. When the adult Jesus heals the sick, washes the feet of his disciples, or breaks the bread, he reveals the characteristics of his heavenly father. But the hands he uses have been shaped and trained by his carpenter father in the workshop.
And there, right at the heart of the incarnation, God reveals himself as a God of relationship, committed to working with us even through the family of his own son.