If we followed the lead of the text of Scripture, the men playing Joseph in our various Christmas programs would have no speaking parts. There is no song of Joseph, nor do we hear him respond verbally to the multiple angelic visits he receives. He never pleads with the innkeeper. He says nothing to the shepherds or sages. He rightly stands stoically in the background of our nativities, work-worn hands behind his back, a model of the many strong, silent-types we know. We see his face in the subdued and unassuming men who make up our world. In front of Joseph’s bent frame, the Infant lies front and center, where he should always be. But this Christmas in particular it may be profitable to let our second glance turn to noble Joseph.
Chronologically, he enters the narrative after Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and the miraculous conception of Jesus in her virgin womb. When her pregnancy is finally revealed, Joseph determines to divorce her (Matthew 1:18-25). The move seems somewhat heartless, but we’re told this decision flowed from the righteousness that marked his character and from a commitment to shielding Mary from shame. It would be done quietly; he would bear whatever disgrace fell to him due to the absence of a more public display.
His plans were of course altered with the appearance of an angel of the Lord, who assured him that the child truly was a work of the Holy Spirit, just as Mary had attested. We might imagine how her claims had been dismissed by nearly everyone but her cousin, Elizabeth, but God always causes the truth to prevail, and often gives us faithful friends to stand by us. Rising from sleep, Joseph’s righteous and just character continue to shine as he immediately follows God’s command, taking Mary as his wife, but postponing the physical consummation of their marriage, honoring both her and God in his self-control.
Matthew 2 shows us that his protection extended from his young bride to the Son he was called to care for. Herod, drunk with power and paranoid that he might be deposed and exposed for the fraud he was, heard the good news of the wise men as a threat to his reign, and chose to eliminate two-year-olds throughout his land rather than humble himself before the true King. In that dark shadow, Joseph’s light shines brighter still. He again silently stands as a shield to the innocent, traveling wherever his dreams directed, aiding in the preservation of the life of Jesus until God safely brought them all to Nazareth.
In the small slice of his life revealed in Scripture, Joseph wordlessly calls to us all, especially the men of our age, to courageously stand against both the easy path of self-preservation and the Herod’s who are focused solely on self-exaltation. He reminds us to trust that God’s ways, though confusing and counter-cultural, always lead to life and joy and the promotion of truth. His example says, “Protect the innocent, especially those whom society would seek to silence. Be a defender of women, of the unborn, and of children. ‘Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’” (Phil. 2:15)
As we seek to match Joseph’s strides, we also join him in taking a step back to let Jesus fill center stage. The Son in the manger would far exceed his earthly father in all his noble actions. Joseph and every man and woman before and after him have dirt and blood on their hands, which is why Christ entered our world – to walk through the dirt of earth but not be stained by sin and to shed his blood to cleanse our violent hands. He’s come to redeem us, to fill us with the power of the Spirit, and to call us to follow him down the path of true holiness and humility. It was a path Joseph walked well, and a path Jesus walked perfectly. May we as men and women of God follow them in our day, proclaiming righteousness through our words and actions.