"Joseph... did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took Mary home as his wife... ."
- Matthew 1:24
He might have been married by then, had there been any prospects in his small New England town, or he hadn't been too shy to pursue that girl down on Main Street. Instead, an escape route - or providence - intervened.
The "route," a forerunner to the Internet perhaps, had many names but just one purpose - introducing lonely singles to each other by mail. His favorite "pen-pal" lived in Ohio. They were the same age; he was the oldest of eight, she the oldest of nine. Neither had been married, but she had a child.
Seven months into their long-distance courtship they met for the first time, two days before the wedding. The ceremony took place in the bride's home. I was asleep in the next room.
I rarely think of Joseph's role in the Christmas story without remembering that the only father I ever knew accepted a similar task of raising someone else's child. Fatherhood was part of the package for both men. Marry the woman, take the child, too.
Joseph could have said, "No." In fact, after learning Mary was pregnant and knowing he was not the child's father, he thought of "putting her away privately" (Matthew 1:19). But that was before a divinely-inspired dream confirmed Mary had not been unfaithful to him.
"Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife, Joseph, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). Mary would bear the child, but Joseph would give him his name. Joseph was more than a stand-in for the other father. He was part of the plan.
Jewish marriage in those days took three steps: First came the engagement, ordinarily arranged by the parents; before marriage was betrothal, a year-long period when the young man and woman had some liberty to object to the marriage. Although they were not considered married during this period, the agreement was binding. Should the union be dissolved, the couple was said to be divorced.
Jewish law also allowed the man to make a public display of his misbehaving fianc. That Joseph considered "putting Mary away privately" showed how much he loved her, as God knew he did. Mary was not the only "highly favored" one in the Christmas story (Luke 1:28). Joseph was also part of the plan.
It might be surprising to learn that, except for a brief reappearance with Jesus at the temple 12 years later, the young man who slips to the fringe of the gospel story following the nativity is the first member of Jesus' family to be mentioned in the New Testament. Matthew's Gospel begins with a 42-generation genealogy, not of Mary, but of Joseph (Matthew 1:16).
Why? Although Joseph knew he was not the child's biological father, most people were unlikely to accept such a story. The main reason for the lengthy detail was that if even a drop of non-Jewish blood were detected in someone's lineage, that person could not be considered a Jew. That Joseph, as well as Mary, was a descendent of Abraham, David and the others, would make Jesus a Jew even if Joseph were his biological father.
Thus, it could be written, when "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus... Joseph went from the City of Nazareth to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David" (Luke 2:1-4). Joseph was part of an earthly plan to fulfill God's plan that the Savior of the world would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
We don't know what became of Joseph after the incident at the temple. Most scholars believe he died early, at least before the crucifixion. Otherwise, as Jesus was dying, he would not have bequeathed the care of his mother to the Apostle John (John 19:26-27).
Songwriter Richard Avery imagines Joseph's role in the birth of the child he would help raise like this:
"Joseph, nervous..., the babe about to come and Joseph really dumb about the things a helpful husband ought to do... quickly finding words and skills he never knew... . A very special baby, the child at Mary's breast, and panting Joseph resting, full of love for this small baby, sweet and new."
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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