I love Handel’s Messiah. Okay, dork that I am, I just love Handel. But this time of year especially, his Messiah can oftentimes be heard playing loudly on our hi-fi; even more frequently rolling around in the private spaces of my brain.
Christmastime is very near and dear to my sweet little family and I. Our kids know it as Jesus’ birthday, and they celebrate it with as much voracity as they do their own. Not for the sake of presents, or goodies, or fun (which, of course, are all lovely parts of any birthday celebration), but because they genuinely love their King Jesus. They have the kind of faith that puts mine to shame: strong in backbone, tender in heart.
Christmastime, for my family, and for so many Jesus-followers around the world, is a time to focus on the miracle of the Incarnation. God becoming man. Doing the unthinkable to save his stubborn, willful creation.
And that is as it should be.
But when I look at the nativity scenes people put in front of their houses, or on their mantels, there’s one figure who’s always there, but is often overlooked.
Joseph. Jesus’ adoptive dad.
Joseph was the living definition of a strong backbone and tender heart.
Really, he was a nobody. A laborer. A blue-collar worker with no decent family lineage to speak of (something that counted for a whole lot back in the first century), save for a very distant relative. The distance between him and King David was so great that it didn’t even count in minds of his counterparts.
Joseph was engaged to be married to this girl named Mary. Mary was a catch. She was pretty. She was good (understatment? Probably). They loved each other.
But then one day Mary came to Joseph. We need to talk, she said. He listened as she told him the news:
She was pregnant.
What a punch to the gut. Because Joseph knew that this was not his child. Humiliation. Shame. Embarrassment.
There were a lot of things Joseph could have done. He could have dragged her by the hair to the public square and told everybody in town that his fiancé was pregnant with another man’s child. Could have had her whipped. Stoned to death. All these were acceptable options for a man wronged in this way in the first century.
But Joseph wasn’t that kind of man. His heart was tender.
Instead, he chose to deal with it quietly. His first thought was to avoid bringing shame to the woman he loved – even though he believed she’d betrayed him in the worst possible way.
But then an angel of God came to him and told him who this child really was. What that child’s destiny was. He instructed Joseph to marry the woman he loved, keep her and protect her and her child, and to name the baby she would bear Jesus.
So Joseph did. Even though it would look like he’d gotten her pregnant before they were married. Even though it meant he would carry a burden of shame that had no grounds in truth for the rest of his life. Joseph followed God’s direction, without question.
His backbone was tempered steel.
When I look at Joseph, I see so much of what I’m not. So much of what I wish I could be. Someone who loves, even when it costs something. Someone who has fears, but doesn’t give those feelings enough credit to hinder doing the right thing. Someone who’s willing to believe that what I see in this moment – all the things that don’t make sense, all the loose ties that could never be wrapped neatly around any sort of package – that all that stuff doesn’t matter.
Because, when it comes down to it, two simple things are the bedrock of life, so well put by Joseph’s first-born son:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
I think Joseph understood this very well. In fact, if it weren’t for the strength of his conviction, and his willingness to love – even through pain – the Christmas I celebrate would be very, very different.
Merry Christmas, dear readers.