I never knew where to put Joseph. Each December I would help unpack the crèche set and put the characters in place. Baby Jesus went in the center; we all knew that. Mary was close by. The shepherds were placed coming in from the left and the wise men from the right. Sometimes there was a sheep or two that could be placed in front of the shepherds.
But in my hand was an additional character. Sometimes it took me a while to remember, “Oh yes. Joseph!” Where to put him was a puzzle.
It was also a puzzle for Christian artists throughout history. They didn’t know where to put Joseph either. In one fourth-century carving, Mary is seated holding the infant Jesus on her lap. Jesus is reaching out to receive the gifts from the three wise men. There are even camels, but Joseph does not appear.
Through the ages, Joseph has been portrayed behind Mary’s chair, or hiding behind a pillar, or standing far off to the side looking irrelevant.
That’s how it is in the Gospel of Luke, as well. Luke says Joseph was the man to whom Mary was engaged. Luke also says it was because of Joseph that Jesus was in the lineage of David. After that, Luke practically shoves Joseph off stage and centers the story on Mary.
Yet Joseph was a person. He has his own faith story.
The Bible tells us very little about Joseph. Was he young or old, bald or bearded, thin or stocky? That, of course, has not stopped the faithful from filling in the missing chinks. About 150 years after the birth of Jesus some kind, faithful souls wrote what one could call a fanciful devotional about the birth of Jesus. An elaborate backstory was invented about Mary growing up in the temple until she was 12, and then being betrothed to Joseph, an old widower with grown sons. That was the first suggestion that Mary was young and Joseph was old. Most paintings of Joseph, then, continued to portray him as old. About the time of the Renaissance, however, a few artists began picturing him as more nearly the age of Mary.
Matthew is the only book in the Bible to take a fair look at Joseph. According to Matthew, Joseph found that Mary was pregnant. He considered divorce, but he did not want Mary to suffer the shame of divorce.
Joseph and Mary were betrothed. In the laws of that time and place, betrothal was as binding as marriage. It required a certificate of divorce to break a betrothal. Unfaithfulness during betrothal was treated as adultery and could be punishable by death.
Matthew tells us that Joseph wanted to cause Mary the least embarrassment. This speaks of Joseph’s love for Mary or, if not love, at least his innate kindness to one who, it appeared, had done him wrong. Either way, this tells us much of the character of Joseph. It is no wonder that sister Anna Mow used to say that Joseph was the kind of man who did not spoil the word “father” for Jesus.
Joseph had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him it was okay to take Mary as his wife because her pregnancy was holy (Matt. 1:20-21). I have never been convinced that dreams are an especially efficient method of communicating anything, let alone the will of the Divine. Even if Joseph did believe his dream came from God, he still had to make up his mind what to do with the message it contained.
Was it just as hard for Joseph to agree to this business as it was for Mary? Mary’s response to the angel was passive: “Let it happen to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). Joseph had to take responsibility; he had to go, to take, and to name. How did he find the courage to obey his angel? Did he know that for the rest of his life he would be moved off center stage and reduced to standing on the sidelines? Why did he agree? Can obedience ever be as swift and unquestioning as the brief New Testament account makes it seem for Mary and for Joseph? Am I the only one who wrestles with obedience?
Traditional Christmas cards frequently feature what one writer has called “an annual ritual humiliation for Joseph.” He offers no lamb, gold, or frankincense. He does not even host the visit of the shepherds or the magi. He simply stands there with the ox and ass, somewhere out of the way so his wife and baby can be adored by the rest of us. He is the model of humility.
In the last century something new has been added to our understanding of Joseph. In modern images of the nativity, he is more prominent. Some say it is a result of a new understanding of masculinity. It is a broader appreciation for the sensitive side of men. As a result, we now see an occasional Christmas card with Joseph holding the baby Jesus with protective tenderness and love. I’m glad to see Joseph back on center stage with Jesus.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.