Image: Guido Reni,Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, 1640
As good, modern Americans, we know Christmas is all about presents, family, and Santa Claus. But billions across the globe still remember and celebrate its larger, original meaning: the coming of the child-King who is Jesus, the Christ. Immanuel, God made flesh who came to dwell with us.
Billions in every corner of the world still remember Christmas is about a humble manger in the nowhere town of Bethlehem. It’s about a young Middle Eastern woman, a teen girl really, who became pregnant under wildly suspicious circumstances. It’s about shepherds, a magnificent star, three wise men and a terribly jealous King who wanted this baby killed. Is that all?
Oh, and there was a father. Well, kind of.
His name was Joseph. He was informed in a dream that even though his to-be, virgin wife was directly pregnant with God’s own baby, he was not to fear in the least. No sane man ever received such news. But in most tellings of the Christmas story, Joseph is merely a bit player. In our manger scenes, he stands aside quietly while the action is with the others present.
But let us really consider the role he really did play, for it was indeed significant. And his participation required not just him, but his manhood. Of course, this is ironic given that a very central part of his manhood was famously not utilized in this fathering. But of course, as it is said, any man can father a child. It is something altogether different to be a father to a child. Joseph was not Jesus’ dad. Our Savior’s lineage of course was wholly Divine and eminently Royal. But our Heavenly Father orchestrated it that His only begotten Son would have a step-father, an earthly stand-in if you will. This is no small thing to be sure!
Just think about the kind of man Joseph was, the type of man God choose to play the major supporting role in the singularly greatest event in all of history. The scriptures tell us he was a just and honorable man and he was there to support Mary and their son.
If there is anything basic about what makes a good man it is this: He steps up for those he loves, does what the situation demands, delivers the goods, and doesn’t whine about it. He makes sure others are taken care of and have what they need. This is precisely what Joseph, the earthly father Christmas did. Think about the various things that played out in the Christmas story:
- Joseph obediently stuck by Mary after the wholly strange announcement of her pregnancy, when his first instinct was to quietly bail.
- Joseph stood rock-like against the vicious hail of small-town gossip raining down on upon him from family, friends, and neighbors at the news. The “Oh, this is God’s child” explanation surely did little to quell the community chatter and was greeted with wild eye-rolls.
- Joseph no doubt helped Mary through her pregnancy, caring for her through morning sickness, preparing meals, making her comfortable, and trying to be patient with her changing hormones.
- On their mundane return trip to pay their taxes, Joseph was called on to calm his now contracting wife and break the news – multiple times – that “there was no room at the inn” after he feverishly checked place after place, option after option, all to no avail.
- Joseph had to “McGyver” it and improvise a solution, convincing his wife that this dirty manger was indeed their best option among none.
- Joseph delivered the child that was not his.
- Joseph presented this child to the world with joy and fatherly-pride.
- Joseph had to then hide his wife and boy away in Egypt to protect them from Herod’s mad baby massacre.
- Joseph worked daily to provide for the child and his mother in every way: food, shelter, direction, protection, emotional support.
- Joseph taught the boy Jesus his trade of carpentry and raised him into manhood.
That was Joseph, Jesus’s earthly dad and our Heavenly Father’s special Christmas agent.
Curiously the scriptures do not give us a word as to when Jesus said his last good-bye to Joseph, like they do his mother. But we cannot pass over how central fatherhood is in the Christmas story. The Son of God has a Father – the Father. But our Good and Gracious Father also saw fit that the Son of Man also had Joseph.
This means that fatherhood is a deeply divine and sacred thing. And dads, as we celebrate Christmas, allow this season to remind us that you are granted a profound honor to participate in something that is an earthly, physical representation of the very nature and character of God Himself: Fatherhood. And that is true even when we are doing such mundane things as changing diapers, wiping sticky faces or reminding your kids to clean their room, do their homework or take out the trash. It’s what God had Joseph do.
It is no overstatement to say that fatherhood is one of the biggest things going on in the universe and is central to the Christmas story.
It is undisputed that the most widely painted single image in all of art history is what we know as “The Madonna and child.” Museums around the globe are absolutely filled with them, which is an underappreciated evidence of the historical truth of Jesus. That many brilliant artists would not concern themselves through centuries with a fairy tale.
But is also interesting that classic paintings of “Joseph and child” are exceedingly rare. Here is my all-time favorite by the Italian master Guido Reni. You can see it at the famous Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is also literally right around the corner from this other very famous painting of a father and a son.
The Daily Citizen has a companion Christmas commentary on Mary, Elizabeth and two in-utero cousins here.
Photo from Wikipedia