Christmas Retold

I’m debating whether to pull out my favorite nerdy theological Christmas joke, one I’ve used a couple times on Christmas Eve probably to people’s chagrin when they hear it in the sermon:

It’s about this time I imagine Joseph turned to Mary and said, “This had better be God’s ONLY begotten Son.”

Let it be noted that it should be obvious that this isn’t my joke since it’s funny, but I don’t remember which comedian told it.

On a more serious note, this really is part of the story I wish had been told. I have to admit that my curiosity about what Joseph thought isn’t because there’s any dearth of male perspectives in the Bible’s narrative witness. It’s not challenging to imagine or ponder Joseph’s heart and mind with what we have, but I’m still a little curious about what Jesus’ stepfather pondered in his own heart.

On this more serious note, Joseph’s relegation to a comparable footnote can be considered a reasonable instance of rare narrative unity among the Gospels, which share the practice of centering the most powerless and otherwise unremarkable characters in the narrative of God’s incarnate Word. Those with social, political, and cultural influence who would typically be the focus of historical narratives are moved into the position of side characters. To this way of thinking, the fact that Joseph was named at all is somewhat exceptional. 

I offer the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as a study in this trend.

If it were Josephus or Herodotus telling the story, it’s likely the main characters here would have been Herod, the Chief Priests of the Jerusalem Temple, or another minor but noteworthy official in or around the seats of political, religious, and cultural authority.

The focus wouldn’t have been on Lazarus, but the rich man. The rich man likely would be named, leaving Lazarus to be called “the poor suffering wretch” or something along those lines. The story may be more of a moral caution that generosity is a good thing, rather than the narrative that those treated unjustly will receive their justice in the end. 

Rather than burning in the pit, the rich man may have faced some twinge of regret as he was living in his continuing relative luxury, perhaps spending a fleeting moment of eternity pondering the plight of an unnamed wretch who was no longer suffering, but likely still wasn’t equal even in the afterlife. Wealth always has bought the illusion of righteous existence on account of our prideful envy.

Though the parable only appears in Luke 16, I think it illustrates well the thematic emphasis of power to the powerless, relief to the oppressed, and the God’s accounting of righteousness being reckoned differently than the world’s. That Lazarus is named is significant in the same way John’s singular naming of Malchus the servant whose ear is severed by Peter’s sword, is important. 

In Luke’s rendering, it’s Lazarus who resides in the bosom of Abraham’s comfort. It’s Lazarus who enjoys a cool tongue, and Lazarus who’s generally unperturbed by the suffering of the one who used to step over him as dogs licked his wounds during their earthly life. It would be largely unthinkable for this narrative to be adopted by the more generally accepted accounts, not because of a demand for more sober historical accounting, since miraculous and heroic deeds appear in many contemporary histories. 

It would be unthinkable because it so subverts the generally accepted narrative that power and morality stem from the Emperor and priestly classes. It would be disruptive in a way that our own culture is disrupted as we wrestle with the fact that our Founders sympathized enough with the economic impact of slavery that they included its practice in our founding documents despite that they viewed it as a poison pill, but necessary for the compromise that would form our earliest unions through the Articles of Confederation and then our own Constitution that’s stood for a surprising length of time.

So it’s true, leaving Joseph’s story untold adheres to an understandable narrative logic. Even so, Joseph assumes a role of far less privilege in choosing this obedience. Since we get some sense of where Mary’s head and heart were, it would be really interesting to get a sense of where Joseph’s internal dialogue was headed beyond a desire to get out of it quietly.

One clue we get is in Matthew’s account, that “Joseph sought to dismiss her quietly”, presumably to save her from shame. Even so, this noble desire also served to minimize Joseph’s own humiliation as it became obvious that Mary was pregnant and people started speculating about what circumstance led to him dismissing his betrothed while pregnant, since it would have been a much smaller and more common scandal for the miracle of Jesus’ birth to be a shorter pregnancy than most. So Joseph would have benefitted, but he wasn’t uncaring. Kudos for not being a total jerk!

I wonder often what else it cost Joseph to raise this child with Mary over the years. We don’t have any account of him beyond the episode at the Temple when Jesus was twelve, so it may indicate an early death. It’s also possible that Joseph simply isn’t narratively required any longer, since at twelve a young boy came into their own spiritual majority, responsible for their own faithful practice. Even now, the bar mitzvah is a celebration of adulthood in the Jewish faith, with its meaning being somewhere along the lines of son of the covenant according to my own poor memory of Hebrew. Bar is the word for son, and mitzvah is a word meaning something like good or righteous works as they relate to the covenant handed down from Moses and other sources of Jewish religious traditions. 

The age of twelve also significant in many Christian traditions, since it’s around the time many children are confirmed as full members of the Church in mainline liturgical denominations who practice infant baptism, through the rite known also as Affirmation of Baptism. It’s also generally thought of as around the age of accountability in many nonliturgical denominations like Baptist and evangelical traditions who practice believer’s baptism. It’s around this age that many young Christians will choose to be baptized and take responsibility for their spiritual walk with Jesus.

Whether it’s because he died or became irrelevant, Joseph’s sacrifice through obedience remains one that leaves me curious.

The cover image by Matt Chinworth appeared as an interior image in the November 2021 issue of Christianity Today. I don’t make any money from this site so I didn’t ask for any permissions, but I have contacted the author and asked about whether a contribution is desired, and encourage you to visit his website and consider supporting him by supporting his work, as I find it quite moving.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s