Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Christmas story


Long, but seasonal.

It may be too early for some, but Christmas is coming, and I have already seen cartoons circulating poking fun at poor Joseph getting a frosty reception from Mary for having forgotten to book a room in the inn.

It is a tired old image, used to justify the widely-held (by men and women alike) cultural idea of men as incompetent fathers or last-minute Christmas shoppers, unable to plan, yet somehow always managing to get away with it, at least in their own eyes.

But British cultural Joseph couldn’t be further from the truth. Here is a man hand-chosen by God, just as much as Mary was, in a careful plan, generations in the making.

Joseph is a descendent of king David. David’s line has long since had the throne stripped from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness towards God, but the hope of restoration remains, no more so than in David’s hometown of Bethlehem. David is the one who wanted to build a house for the Lord, but was not permitted to do so, on account of having blood on his hands, the blood of Uriah husband of Bathsheba. Instead, the Lord permits David’s son by Bathsheba, Solomon, to build a temple David plans and prepares for.

That in itself is a redemption story. But David’s faithful descendant Joseph is—listen to this—a builder of houses—and the one entrusted with guiding Jesus through the transformation from God-with-us in a tent (which is how the Prologue to John’s Gospel describes the coming of Jesus) to the one who will build God’s house, the Church.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, but he has travelled to Nazareth to be betrothed to Mary. In that culture, bridegrooms would then return to their parental home, and build a new extension in which they would begin a new life before returning to fetch their bride. Extended family generations sometimes created a compound of (essentially) one-roomed dwellings, around one or more courtyards. Things go somewhat differently for Joseph.

First, he discovers that the girl he is betrothed to is pregnant, and he is not the father. This is clearly a cause of distress to him, but his response is that of a righteous man. After prayer and reflection, he resolves to break off the betrothal quietly, in such a way as to protect Mary from scandal and, potentially, from death threats. But then an angel, a messenger from God, comes to him in a dream and convinces him to take Mary as his wife and to raise the child, for this is God’s plan.

In the meantime, Mary has travelled to her relative Elizabeth, nearer to Bethlehem. Elizabeth is also unexpectedly pregnant. They may each help shield the other from unwanted attention.

Further complicating matters, a periodic Roman census is called (the most famous of these, though almost certainly not this one, occurred under Quirinius, Governor of Syria) and Joseph heads to his home in Bethlehem—to register where he lived—taking Mary with him. (No census called for a return to your place-of-origin; empires want to know who lives where, not where they originate from.)

In all these circumstances, there may not have been time for Joseph to build a new home for his bride. And so they lodge with family, most likely Joseph’s immediate family although any family in Bethlehem would have welcomed a son of David. Families lived all together in a single room, with animals such as a small cow and goats kept at a lower level at one end (providing warmth at night, as well as protection for the animals) and a guest room either at the other end from the animals or on the flat roof. This is the room were Mary and Joseph were staying. Not an inn where travellers paid to sleep on a shared floor, but the guest room of a family home.

However, this room was too small for Mary to give birth, attended to by the women and girls of the home and the women who served the community as midwives, and so Jesus was born in the main room at the heart of his extended family at the heart of a community eagerly anticipating a descendant of David to whom God would restore the throne.

That night, the whole town rejoiced. And there, the young family lived, for a couple of years, Joseph building a home, to which in time a caravan of astrologers from royal courts to the east came to honour the birth of a new king of the Jews. This greatly disturbed the king on the throne, a paranoid vassal of Rome, who (we are told) ordered that every infant in and around Bethlehem be massacred. That is when the hopes and dreams of David’s community bled out.

(This is why the Prologue of John’s Gospel speaks of all those who recognised Jesus’ coming to his people, as well as those who did not recognise, or acknowledge, him.)

But once again, Joseph is visited by night by an angel, and, so warned, gathers up his little family and flees as a refugee to the Jewish diaspora community in Egypt. Here is a man who knows when it is wisest to run away. And there they live until after Herod the Great dies, when they—perhaps by now already joined by the next of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—set out for Bethlehem; though on discovering that Herod’s most unstable heir is ruling there, they continue north and build a life in Nazareth, close to Mary’s side of the family.

Joseph is a remarkable man; a remarkable husband and father; a remarkable friend and trusted covenant partner to God. He has been on my mind today.


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