It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. The man was named Joseph. His fiancé was Mary. She was going to have a baby and it sure wasn't his. Compassion, honor and duty dueled within Joseph.
He could not pretend there was no problem. She had obviously betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching.
Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as his honor and the Law required, but on terms formed by Joseph's compassion. He would break his engagement to her and send her away without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. It would clear the slate, restore his honor and was least hurtful to the young woman.
What the outcome would have been by Joseph’s plan we don’t know, because God revealed to him what was really going on, and Joseph changed his mind.
Joseph dreamed of an angel, who informed Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel gave Joseph instructions: take Mary home as his wife and adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus, a common and undistinguished name then, meaning,“God helps.”
These things came to pass. In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, it confirmed the child as his own. Maybe others knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage. That is why Jesus could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph adopted Jesus as his own son. “This child belongs to me, this child is my child, ” is what Joseph proclaimed when he named the child Jesus.
In the Gospels, Joseph is treated somewhat cursorily. Mary gets a lot more play. Joseph never speaks. Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but not even one syllable he ever uttered is related. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants.
Another pastor told me of one afternoon before the annual Christmas program, when a mother phoned the church office to say that her son, who was to play Joseph in the children's play, was sick and wouldn't be able to be there. “It's too late now to get another Joseph,” the director of the play said. “We'll just have to write him out of the script.” And they did. Joseph is easy to overlook and leave out.
In 1993, my wife played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. She got the part really because they needed our newborn daughter play the baby Jesus, there being no other small infant in the congregation. Mom and baby, Mary and Jesus, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the pastor asked me, “Don, did you want to play Joseph or should we get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would, but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel ... .
But more is going on with Joseph than is first apparent. A recurring theme of St. Paul is that Jesus' followers are adopted by God and made children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. This should make us reconsider the significance of where Joseph fits in with God’s work. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is highly significant.
What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway. Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother, both Mary and Jesus outcast from society? How would Jesus have conceived of God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? It took courage for Joseph to claim Jesus as his own.
Before God adopts us into the family of Christ, God sent his son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of humankind. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us, "God with us."
Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts human beings as children of God. There seems to be a symmetry of salvation and relationship at work. We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”