Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph: the bass player of the Nativity Story

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 1:18-25.

If you have ever been in a band, you will understand why I say Joseph is the bass player of the Nativity Story.  Although nobody pays attention to them, bass players provide a solid backbone to any tune, and although you would notice something was off if they weren't there, most people would be hard pressed to point out their contribution.

And then there is Joseph.  According to the story, he is not really Jesus' father, and although he does have a feast day and hymns dedicated to him, I actually had to look that information up, as, I suspect, most Christians would.  He doesn't have a very active role in the Nativity, he is just sort of there.

In reality, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, when we contemplate the theme of love, we discover that Joseph actually does some pretty monumental things that often get glossed over.

When Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant and that he is not the father, he decides to send her away quietly and "divorce her" (although they were only engaged, engagement in that time and place was as binding as a marriage).  This does not immediately sound very loving until we consider the punishment for women who committed adultery: death by stoning.

Whatever you may personally believe about the Immaculate Conception (some believe Joseph must have been Jesus' father, some believe it was another unnamed man), the point is that from an outside perspective, Mary was pregnant out of wedlock and as such would be seen as having committed adultery, end of story.  Joseph would have been entirely in his right (in that time and place) to turn Mary over to the authorities to have her put to death.

But here is the thing: he didn't.  The passage says he was "a righteous man", a man who clearly loved Mary enough to not seek vengeance against her, who wanted to save her life be sending her quietly away so she could start over in another city or country.

Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him to go ahead and marry Mary, and Joseph assents, nd here is where Joseph shows the plucky backbone of the bass player: by actually going through with the marriage, Joseph was opening himself up to all sorts of shame, mockery and ridicule.  No matter what the true story was, most people would likely not have swallowed the angel story.  Most people would likely have assumed that either Mary had an affair or simply that Joseph and Mary couldn't wait.  At best, Joseph would be a cuckold.  At worst, he would also be an adulterer.  Either way, from an outside perspective, he had joined himself to a "shameful woman", and he would be an object of shame by association.

But Joseph chose to live with that shame and ignominy.  That takes some courage and some humility.  Most of all, it takes love.

Love is a word we toss around, and we have been mulling it over as a species for thousands of years.  I am no great philosopher, so I am not able to add any great revelation to the concept, but I do know that all love has its challenges: it sometimes takes effort to love our spouses, our children, our parents.  This becomes a little more obvious over holidays live Christmas where families get together and are often reminded why we moved out in the first place.  Love is not effortless much of the time.  It takes work, it takes sacrifice.

These are things Joseph was able to do, and although he is often an afterthought, I think there is much to admire in him.  May we take all that is admirable in him and in all the characters of the Nativity Story and practice that this Christmas.


  1. I too have been thinking of Joseph. You may enjoy this French carol from the renaissance.

    PS the Immaculate Conception refers to the Conception without sin of Mary (Mother=Ann) not the annunciation -the conception of Jesus (Mother=Mary).

  2. I didn't even know that was a thing...thanks for the clarification!