Would it have been in late spring when Joseph found out that Mary was “with child”? In a small agricultural village like Nazareth keen-eyed women must have noted Mary’s changed condition. Loose tongues, whispered innuendos must have gotten back to Joseph. In a tradition-bound society this would have pained him very much. Hadn’t they just become engaged. His pledge to marry her couldn’t be taken lightly. As a “righteous man” he didn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace.” He resolved to “dismiss her quietly.” No doubt, though, Mary would suffer no matter how discreet his rejection might be. Surely he would have spent a long troubled night contemplating this action.
He likely would have been resting on a mud-brick sleeping platform covered by a blanket with his robe drawn over him as he sought the relief of sleep. We know from excavations in Nazareth that the houses of most ordinary first-century villagers had rough stone foundations supporting whitewashed mud-brick walls. The basic layout had small rooms with maybe one shuttered window each off a common courtyard. A simple stairway or a ladder would lead up the flat roof which would serve as an outdoor room shaded by hung matting. This would be a work area by day and a sleeping area during the time of summer heat. All Jewish homes would also have had a mezuzah on an entry post proclaiming their faith.
Cool spring nights probably meant that Joseph in his true “tiny house” would have slept indoors. There he had a dream about Mary, the child in her womb, and the Holy Spirit. It profoundly changed his life. Joseph then awoke and made his resolution. He “took her as his wife.” Jesus would be born into a family.
The story of Joseph’s acceptance, which we hear again now, has been told for over two millennia. The child Mary was carrying, we hear, would fulfil the words of the prophet Isaiah written a further 700 years before the first Christmas. “And they shall name him Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us.’ ”
Joseph made his decision. He accepted Mary and would accompany her through the remaining months of her pregnancy. Alone with her in Bethlehem, had he assisted in the birth? Having witnessed the birth of both of my children, images of the birthing pain, the blood and anxiety then followed by the exhilaration of greeting a new baby remain strong for me to this day. This powerful experience left me with an overwhelming sense of obligation, a bond, not only to the new life before me but also to the family that I, my wife, Eva, and our children, had become. And through our family we found our place among our extended family, in community, society and indeed the whole web of life.
As a new father Joseph must have felt similarly united in love to his wife and child. His actions confirmed it. He sheltered this woman whose travails brought forth a new life. He protected this baby. He consciously took on this responsibility and committed himself to help raise this child. He became a father to Jesus.
The family Jesus grew up in, we know from later in the Gospel of Matthew as well as in Mark, included James, Joses, Judas, and Simon who are referred to as his brothers. As well we are told that he had sisters also but they remained unnamed by the gospel authors. Some commentators offer that these were maybe Joseph’s children by an unrecorded previous marriage. Others argue that the words “brothers and sisters” actually refer to cousins. Whatever interpretation we accept, we know that Jesus, because of Joseph’s decision, grew up in a large family.
One Spanish expression I have always appreciated is one which refers to the act of giving birth. It is to “dar luz” which literally means “to give light.” A small, vulnerable, totally dependent baby coming into the light mirrors our own continual spiritual birthing. We all are vulnerable and in need of succor. We seek the light consciously or unconsciously. Paul tells us that we are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” We are welcomed into the light of a spiritual family where we can grow confident in God’s limitless love for us. When we deeply feel the security of this attachment, we can also learn to give love without limit.
The hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel draws its inspiration from a ninth-century poem and put to music centuries later. As again this Advent season we raise our voices singing its verses, we are pleading to God to “ransom captive Israel,” to “put death’s dark shadows to flight” and to “make safe the way that leads on high.” In the face of life’s adversity and the litany of woes besetting our world today, we need the special gift of awareness of Emmanuel — that God is indeed with us. Just as the small hand of a child seeks out the hand of a parent to guide and comfort them, so too do we need the spiritual hand which is always held out to us to offer hope and solace.
Assuredly Joseph took the hand of Jesus many times as they walked dusty village paths. Just as confidently we need to extend our hand to hold and be held, for indeed God is with us.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.