When children are putting together a manger, there is generally one figure who causes some puzzlement. ‘Who’s this - another shepherd?’ No – this is Joseph! Who’s Joseph, then? ‘Well, he’s Mary’s husband’. ‘Oh, so he’s Jesus’ father,’ ‘Well – not exactly....’
Joseph gets scant attention in the birth narratives, and then disappears from the New Testament almost completely. There are one or two indirect references. When the family can’t find the twelve years old Jesus in Jerusalem and eventually discover him in the temple, Mary scolds him: ‘Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’
In Matthew 13:55 Sceptics at Nazareth ask: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ And in that same verse we learn that Mary and Joseph have four more sons, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, and it’s probable that Joseph leaves a legacy in that one of those sons, James, becomes head of the church in Jerusalem. But actually we know virtually nothing about Joseph.
But as we celebrate Christmas, let’s ask ourselves: Who was the organiser behind the scenes? Who got Mary and the unborn child safely to Bethlehem? Who eventually found somewhere where Jesus could be born, and guarded Mary and the tiny, vulnerable newborn baby through those nightmarish days? Who organised the flight to Egypt and led the way, and then decided when it was safe to return? Who settled the home at Nazareth and set up in business so that Jesus could grow up in a settled family life? Who was Mary’s husband who had the task (with her) of bringing up this extraordinary child, disciplining him, training him, teaching him, and ensuring that he grew up a balanced and mature adult? Answer, Joseph.
So I want to nominate Joseph as my unsung hero. Patron saint of all those who work behind the scenes, make things happen, and get little or no credit. Patron saint of all those without whom, all the main events in the world simply wouldn’t work.
Let’s celebrate today as very important Christians, all those in our Church whose work is seldom seen – organising, helping, cleaning, teaching, administrating – a large team who (in the prayer of St Francis) labour and seek for no reward, save that of knowing that they do God’s will. Let’s thank God for those who never appear up-front, and might well shrink from any public vote of appreciation.
Let’s celebrate all those who quietly use their faith in their daily work, upholding Christian values, setting a Christian example, and sometimes suffering discrimination because they won’t take the short cuts, or take advantage of the system.
Let’s pray today for that vast number of anonymous, faithful Christians in many parts of the world, who seldom reach the headlines, but are being disgracefully persecuted in Muslim and other countries because of their Christian faith, and whose fate we shall never know in this life, as is the case so often in Pakistan because of the iniquitous blasphemy laws.
What can we do to celebrate Joseph? Well, Church and society need volunteers, part of this much heralded ‘big society’. Can we make time to contribute something, even if it’s only our time and presence, to help a Church or other voluntary organisation work better?
Or, coming at it from a different direction, when something offends the Christian faith on radio or television or in the media, instead of just moaning, will you actually sit down and take the trouble to write a short letter? Not an outraged, furious letter, but a dignified, reasonable letter. It’s really amazing how much notice is taken of a letter. Just putting pen to paper, or sending an email sensibly phrased, really does make a difference – and it’s all done quietly and behind the scenes.
Do you make a reasonable, quiet but firm complaint when something happens that offends your faith? People of other faiths do, and are both heard and respected when they stand up for their faith – why so seldom is it the Christian voice that is heard. You don’t need an outraged letter to the Daily Mail – it is usually the quiet word and the explanation of your personal hurt which goes home far more effectively than you think. For example: ‘I just want to tell you that I am a Christian, and what you are doing – or saying – really hurts me.’ You will be surprised at the reaction sometimes.
Over the last few days it happens that I have heard several stories of school nativity plays which even include angels and the like, but the missing characters are Mary, Joseph and the baby. If every Christian parent registered verbally and in writing that this is not acceptable, they might not be fobbed off with explanations about how difficult it is. We can also make it clear that there’s no reason why other religious festivals should not be celebrated as well, but each must have it’s own integrity if the children to understand and gain anything worthwhile.
Of course, we need really prayerful judgment about when to speak and when to keep silent. Also getting the tone right is vital. But if every Christian – quietly but firmly – stood up for their faith, society would notice and perhaps change. Let Joseph be our role model this Christmas and into the coming year. Someone hardly seen – not a celebrity – but whose quiet influence and actions behind the scenes, enabled the New Testament story to unfold. I wonder what would have happened to Mary and Jesus if he had not been there. And I wonder what will happen to our Christian Church if we are not in his shoes today.