Every year as I immerse myself in the Christmas story, I feel a deep empathy for Joseph. What a tough spot he found himself in. To be a minor player in such a major story is tough all on its own, but in a patriarchal culture in a primitive and premodern world, what happened to Joseph is beyond most modern minds to imagine. To have life-shaping decisions made about one’s betrothed was a big deal. Though sexual dalliance among the very young (by our standards — it wasn’t unusual for 13 and 14-year-old girls to delivery their first child) a pre-marriage pregnancy ended most relationships (since the majority of women were sent away or put to death). To then have all the responsibility to raise God’s Son — how do you discipline the Messiah? Spare the rod and spoil the Savior? A child certainly changes everything, but the Divine Child of God — how much extra stress does such a charge create?
We so often sanitize the story of the birth of the baby Jesus, that we rob it of any reality it might demand. Life in the first century was difficult, especially for the poor. Infant mortality was high, due to poor hygiene, wild-spread illness and disease, poor nutrition, accident and injury, and even abandonment and abuse. The social culture of Marys and Josephs was illiterate and simple, provincial and unambitious. Opportunities for advancement were limited in the extreme, and survival was the primary driving value. Daily life was dirty, sweaty, dull, redundant — and most people dreamed of nothing different. The poor were powerless, voiceless, anxious and often desperate. Life under Roman oppression was anything but pleasant. In short, life was hard, demanding and uncompromising. Family, tribe and bloodline was incredibly important — to father another’s child was a much bigger deal then than now.
Year’s ago, I included the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s “Cry of a Tiny Babe,” in an Advent/Christmas devotional. The essence of the song is the fragility and humanness of Mary and Joseph coming to terms with the immensity of what happened to them. One man, Joe, a lifelong Catholic, was absolutely furious with me, and was particularly angered that the song ascribed human emotions, thoughts or feelings to Mary. The idea that Joseph could have possibly questioned, or been troubled by, Mary’s pregnancy. The concept that sex had anything to do with pregnancy was deeply offensive to Joe. Of course, Joe also believed that Mary died a virgin and that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were from a prior marriage. Shaking with rage, Joe said to me, “Mary NEVER had sex in her entire life.” For Joe, Joseph was essentially disposable — an irrelevant player in the divine drama.
This brings to mind another encounter I once had with a young woman, Susan, also coming from a traditional Catholic home. In the course of a Bible study, the conversation shifted to what it might be like to be responsible for the Son of God. Comments were made that “babies are babies,” “babies cry and misbehave,” “babies poop,” “toddlers break things,” “kids are selfish,” “kids are dirty,” etc., and with each passing comment, Susan became more and more agitated. Finally, tears ran down her cheeks and she rushed out of the room. I followed her to find out what was wrong. Trembling, she lashed out, “We’re talking about JESUS — not just any baby. I’ve been taught that the baby Jesus NEVER cried, that he was a perfect child. The idea that he is dirty or misbehaved or pooped is sacrilegious. I can’t believe you would allow such lies to go unchallenged! The Son of God is perfect! This is a hateful class, making Jesus just like every other child.”
Ah, fully human, fully divine — a 2,000+ year discussion. In non-canonical Christian writings, we have stories of Jesus fashioning mud into birds and bringing them to life, a story of striking a playmate dead then bringing him back to life, miracle stories big and small of the child Savior. Some of these tails made their way into the Christian mythology of Jesus’ childhood. There is a justified explanation for how we have sanitized baby Jesus, but the question still remains, “is this a good thing?” When we de-humanize Jesus, we separate ourselves from the restorative work of God — Jesus came to save and became fully human to do so. I cannot imagine what Joseph felt. To be given the greatest responsibility in all history to train, support, guide, discipline, and raise the Son of God is an incredible burden. The pressure to make sure you do it right, to make the best decisions on behalf of the child, to protect and defend to adulthood the Messiah of the world — that’s the meaning of Christmas to Joseph. What a gift, what a curse! A Joseph Christmas is about the cost, the obligation, the expectation, the immensity, and the humility more than the joy, awe, wonder, peace and purity. The sweet, genteel, scrubbed and scoured Mary Christmas we have is wonderful; but the down and dirty, rough and tumble, hard and demanding Christmas of Joseph may just be the one we need.