As the Church celebrates the Christmas season, we hear the familiar stories from the Bible. Of the biblical accounts, the exchange between Gabriel and Mary, the move to Bethlehem for the census, and the birth of Jesus and his placement in a manger all stand out in the hearts and minds of believers.
But there is another part of the story. It is proclaimed by the Church in this season, but it doesn’t get the same press time as the other stories.
The overlooked part of the great Christmas story is the person of Joseph. Admittedly, compared to Jesus Christ, the God-Man, and Mary, who was made sinless at her conception, Joseph is certainly the odd person out. Yet he is a part of the story, and his presence and actions give us a different angle and perspective of what happened around the Christmas Day.
Our theological tradition makes room for Joseph. We are told that only God merits adoration (true worship), Mary receives hyperdulia (a type of super-sized honor and respect), while all other saints (and the angels) are given dulia (a basic respect and honor). But Joseph, we are further instructed, receives protodulia, which means he is the proto – the “first” – among all the saints to receive respect and honor. He is preeminent among all the holy ones.
We are told that Joseph was a “just man.” Such a designation would have been rare in his day, since the entire task of the Israelite was to live a righteous life, namely, a life in complete conformity to the teachings and law of God. To be “just,” therefore, was the goal of a life’s work of following God.
While we live in a world of exaggerations, hyperboles, and public relations statements, which many times make any declaration of virtue or goodness (or even competency) weak and without merit, the writers of the gospel books did not indulge such things.
When Joseph is declared a “just man,” it was a statement of fact. It was reality. There were no overstatements or amplifications. It was a truthful statement of who the man was. Joseph was, by all accounts, a just man. He sought to honor God in everything he did, and we see how such an adherence to God transformed him and gave him divine wisdom.
When Mary, his betrothed, became pregnant, he could have made a big deal out of it. He could have played the victim. He could have embarrassed her and her family. The law of Moses provided other options, including public stoning. But Joseph was willing to let it go and pursue a quiet divorce. Such a decision showed not only his compassion, but also his immense humility. In a normal order of events, he was giving the woman the freedom to pursue a relationship with the biological father.
When God’s angel, however, announced that the child was by the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph didn’t question it. He was a just man, and accepted what the angel said. This action demonstrated not only his obedience, but again his humility. By bringing Mary into his home, he was allowing the perception that he was the biological father and that he and Mary had broken the usual chastity of the betrothment period.
In addition, Joseph didn’t squabble with the angel when he instructed him to name the child. Such an act, usually performed during a boy’s circumcision, was the public declaration by a man that the child was his own.
This naming was essential in Israelite culture, since inclusion into the Chosen People came by blood. While the maternal line was needed for blood authenticity, since everyone could easily observe who the mother was, the father’s acceptance and naming of the child was necessary since it was the man’s statement that the child was his own. Such an act by the father gave the boy formal admittance into the Israel of God.
Unlike Roman culture and law, where adoption was a fairly regular custom, adoption was uncommon in Israel. If a child somehow became parentless, the extended family stepped in and took care of things. If a man named a child on its eighth day, then the child was his. While theologically we sometimes designate Joseph as the Lord’s “foster father” or use other such titles in order to emphasize his virgin birth and divine identity, such clarifications didn’t popularly exist among the Israelites of Joseph’s day.
When Joseph named the child, the boy was considered his own. No questions asked. The boy – called “Jesus” by his father – now became, like Joseph, a son of Judah and a member of the House of David. He was a full Israelite. And Joseph, who did all that was asked of him, named Jesus with humility, gratitude, and towering boldness.
In all things, Joseph obeyed. He did whatever was asked. In these ways, he showed himself to be God’s “go to” man. He showed himself to be – without question – a truly just man.
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