Dec. 19, 2021
This is the season when people around the world remember the birth of your son, Jesus. Scenes of this abound—in paintings, in Christmas cards, in live re-enactments, and on and on. Although it seems to me that people have tended to focus more on the baby Jesus or on his mother Mary than on you, as if you were some kind of third wheel.
But you were and are no third wheel.
This year’s letter is to you.
Although the fact that you weren’t the focus of the old stories has meant, I must admit, that it’s been challenging to get to know you. There’s just bits and pieces: one clue here, another clue there. Which, again, I think is scandalous, since you were there in Bethlehem, in the manger, when Mary cried out in pain and Jesus was born.
Were you the one who wrapped him in swaddling clothes? Or perhaps you were able to find a midwife at the last second, and she did that?
I can see you with your rough carpenter’s hands, holding the just-born baby, who was probably all purplish-colored, with a squashed face, squalling like a banshee. I’ll bet your smile was as big as mine when my own daughter was born.
But I see all this only through imagination. As I said, the stories give us only bits and pieces about you, and that’s all we have to go on.
One thing we can be pretty sure of, though, is that you protected your family. Matthew’s gospel tells this part of your story. The political ruler of the land in which you lived, Judea, was King Herod, and he was a paranoid kind of guy. Always on the lookout for people plotting to take away his power. So you well know what happened when the Wise Men from the East came to him asking about the child who was destined to be a rival King of the Jews. When King Herod heard all this, he was astonished, then enraged. No way was he going to allow it. He decided then and there that he was going to hunt you down and murder your son, destroy your family.
Anything to preserve his throne.
News of this got back to you—an angel warned you. So you did what you had to do. You got up and got out of there. Moved your family all the way to Egypt, for safety’s sake. Only when you heard that King Herod was dead and the coast was clear did you return home to Nazareth.
You’d be happy to know that, because of this and all the other ways you protected your family against harm, you’ve become legendary. For Catholic Christians today, you are viewed as nothing less than the protector of the Universal Church. That’s how they see you.
But I wonder what that moment of choice was like: whether to move to Egypt, or to do ten other possible things. Someone has said that, where decisions are concerned, hindsight is 20/20. But in the moment, when you were deciding how to protect your family, things were probably not so clear at all, and your worrying imagination must have shown you all sorts of possible consequences to whatever action you would decide on.
Joseph, my church is in a similar place now. Not that there is a literal King Herod gunning after us. But the danger that Herod represented to you is a danger we today have all been living with for almost two years now, and it’s called Covid-19. In these almost two years, there has been surge then decline, surge then decline, on and on; and there have been so many variants of COVID-19 that scientists are now onto the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet to describe the most recent one: Omicron.
The 15th letter!
Joseph, as the protector of the Universal Church, help us in our current day to envision what real protection can look like for us, all things considered, in our current moment when we will enter a third year of dealing with the Covid danger in 2022, and when it’s become crystal clear that the COVID-19 danger is not going away but is becoming a permanent fixture in our lives, and the only kind of normal that will be available to us is a truly new normal.
How to get it right? How to thread the needle? How to balance out all the aspects of our lives clamoring to be seen and protected and preserved? How to provide guidance to the hundreds of people here who are all over the map when it comes to the perception of risk, actual safety needs, and then that powerful singular need to be in community together, to be sustained and strengthened by community, and when community is denied that in itself becomes its own kind of terrible threat, its own kind of unsafety and danger?
Joseph, I pray for our church leaders. I pray for our staff. May we pray for each other. It has been such an anxious, wearying time. You did the best you could, facing down the threat of King Herod. May we do that too, in our own day.
It’s about protection. Protecting what matters to us, in all dimensions. Joseph, you held the baby Jesus in your arms moments after he was born, when he was all purplish, his face squished, squalling like a banshee—and I’ll bet that you swore then and there that you would do anything to protect that child. That’s what parents do.
Or ought to.
Of course, it’s easy to protect someone when they are a baby, helpless in your arms. I admit that. It gets far more difficult when babies learn how to move around on their own and start to develop their own opinions, when they grow into children and then into youth. All along the way, they’re making more and more decisions of their own, and we can’t live their lives for them. I know you know what I’m talking about.
A couple of stories come to mind which suggest as much.
There’s two of them. The first one comes from a piece of writing called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (which is ancient but not part of the official Bible). According to the story, there was a time when your son got into the habit of using his miraculous powers but to do bad things. How old was he at the time? Four? Five? He’d be playing with friends, and they’d start to annoy him, and when that happened, your son would use his God powers to strike them dead. Just like that.
The rest of the story says that the parents of Jesus’ dead playmates, and others, were obviously upset with what was happening and so they went to you, pled with you to do something. Reign Jesus in. Teach him to use his miracle powers for good and not for ill.
And you tried. You sat Jesus down and reasoned with him, but he wouldn’t listen–he was all fidgety and distracted. So you got irritated. You’d had enough, and you yanked his ear. In response, Jesus growled at you and said in a voice big with warning: Do Not Vex Me!
That’s the first story. Here’s the second, and this one does appear in official Christian scriptures. In this story, Jesus is 12, and you and your wife Mary traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover at the Temple. You went with a big caravan with lots of people and tents, so when you were on the return journey back home, you just assumed he was there somewhere, even if you didn’t happen to see him. But soon enough, you realized your error. He wasn’t with the caravan. He was still back in Jerusalem. Panic struck both you and Mary. Your blood pressure went way up. You rushed back to the city and went looking for him. And finally, you found him: he’s in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions about ethics and religion and answering theirs.
Do you remember what Mary said when you finally got to him? She said, “Jesus, we’ve been in a state of panic ever since we realized you weren’t with the caravan. Why did you not gather with the rest of us? Why have you treated us like this? We’ve been looking all over for you!”
And then Jesus, your twelve year old son, the one whose beard was just starting to grow out in faint whisps, said, in the uppity way that many 12 year olds have perfected, “Why, mother, why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I was in my Father’s house?”
Oh, Joseph. Did you have a word in your native language of Aramaic for “sass”? For “cheek”, for “impertinence,” for “insolence”? Or maybe just “thoughtlessness”? “Carelessness”?
Surely you did….
I just want you to know that I appreciate the stories where you are trying to teach Jesus ethics and a sense of thoughtfulness for others. It’s one thing to be a protector, but it’s another thing to teach your kids how to make good choices. It’s the difference between fishing for them and teaching them how to fish for themselves. And clearly, you succeeded. If, as a child, Jesus used his God powers recklessly and cruelly, when he was older he used them to heal and to bless. If, as a teenager, Jesus wasn’t very thoughtful towards others, as an adult his example of thoughtfulness would transform billions of lives.
Fact is, all our children have powers. Maybe not miraculous powers, but powers that can still harm or heal. Joseph, teach us to be courageous in our parenting and mentoring, especially in those moments when our kids growl at us, Do Not Vex Me! Help us to lay out fair and clear boundaries and then consistently keep them. You know what’s at stake. It’s about helping our children and youth learn how to use their freedom in a way that will be a blessing to the world.
There is all the difference in the world between empowerment and abandonment. Freedom that is healthy and creative just won’t happen automatically on its own.
Thanks for being such a great parent, both you and Mary.
And I have to say that my admiration for you only increases in light of how you responded to the difficult circumstances of Jesus’ birth. You had not yet had intimate relations with Mary, though you were engaged to be married; and so, when you heard the news of her pregnancy, you must have felt wave after wave of shame. In your time, this would have amounted to the violation of an absolute social taboo. So your first impulse was to divorce Mary. Given your culture and time, I just can’t imagine how your response could have been any different. It was the sort of thing that would have made people treat you like a joke. Yet you wanted to divorce her quietly, so as to minimize her pain. This is in itself remarkable, for you could have thrown her to the wolves and felt 100% justified and everyone around you would have agreed.
But you didn’t. You were kind.
And then something happened that caused you to do the unthinkable. This unborn child, who was not yours—you decided to accept it as your own.
Why? What happened?
Matthew’s gospel says that it was an Angel of the Lord. It appeared to you in a dream and said, “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.”
Joseph, did that really happen? Tell it to me straight.
I was reading Joseph Campbell the other day—that great teacher of world mythology—and he said that the “virgin birth” story is actually Greek in origin and has nothing to do with physical birth. Instead, it’s a way of symbolizing the birth of the spiritual self, which happens not through physical intercourse but by hearing words of inspired wisdom and compassion and truth. Joseph Campbell then went on to say that the early Christian writers wanted to emphasize the fact that Jesus was a spiritual hero, and so, naturally, they incorporated the virgin birth theme into his story. Which, subsequently, was immediately misunderstood and confused with physical birth. People took the symbol of “virgin birth” literally, and so ever since, we’ve been scratching our heads trying to understand how any physical pregnancy could happen through the Holy Spirit.
But I’m talking about historical developments that happened long after you had died, Joseph, long after even Jesus had died. Matthew’s gospel, which talks about the virgin birth, was written 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death. That’s when the early Christian writers drew from Greek religion to try to make sense of the amazing life of your son.
Again, it all happened long after you were gone. And so I want to ask you, once more: what really did happen to change your mind? What moved you to accept this unborn child who was not yours?
I mean, science makes it inescapable: if in truth the child was not yours, it had to have been the child of another man.
But in the end that fact did not faze you. You loved Mary and Jesus. You adopted Jesus as your own. You raised him as your own. He was in danger, and you protected him. He growled at you, Do Not Vex Me, and you did not abandon him. He was thoughtless, and you did not just let him run wild, but parented him and mentored him so that he would grow up strong and beautiful and true.
Joseph, I wish you were here and now so that we could speak face to face. Perhaps what happened is that you saw something that takes some people years and years to figure out. That in the end, our children are not truly ours. They may be tied to us in a biological sense or a legal sense, but this can never mean that we own them and can do what we want with them. Each child belongs, ultimately, to the world; and each one brings something completely new into it.
In the end, whoever we are to the children and youth around us—biological parents or adopted parents; grandparents, aunts and uncles; teachers and friends and congregation—our job is to be good stewards of these gifts to the world, to help our children develop and grow so that their gift can be given.
Joseph, you fathered Jesus. Biology did not matter. Family, you knew, has more to do with love than with anything else. You took Jesus in, and because of your love and Mary’s, Jesus grew to know that above all, who he was was a son of God. God’s son, loved with a love that never ends.
Teach us, Joseph, to help our children realize this love directly and unforgettably for themselves, too. That they are children of all that is Holy.
That we are as well. Children of God.
Blessings to you this day, Joseph, in this sacred season when your child was born.
I’m yours sincerely,