Christmas Eve Reflection, Earthsprings, 2008

Years ago, on a Christmas Eve, I attempted to write a poem, unfortunately not very successfully, but the kernel of thought that poem contained has stayed with me. The poem was about Joseph. Not Jesus. Not Mary, but Joseph. Just now I searched for my copy of that discarded poem, but I failed to find it. Appropriately enough.

For, you see, what I was thinking about years ago was that Joseph has been, at least in my experience, undervalued. We spend a lot of time at Christmas talking about Mary and Jesus. We sing songs about mother and child. But what was it like for Joseph, back there on that first Christmas Eve? The night of Jesus’ birth?

Now, I don’t mean to be sacrilegious by my tone, not at all. And whether the Biblical stories are literally true or not is irrelevant to my point here.

I am merely trying to look at this whole thing from Joseph’s point of view. Why? Because I think many people, maybe most people, can identify more with Joseph than with Mary or Jesus.

What we know from the Biblical version is that Joseph was a carpenter, a devout Hebrew from a long line of devout Hebrews “of the house of David,” going all the way back as far as anyone could remember. We know that he was engaged to be married to a very young woman named Mary whom possibly he loved.

And we know that one day she showed up wherever he was to tell him what must have sounded to him like an outrageous and extremely upsetting story. She told him about an angel who had, she said, come to her and told her that “the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee…” and, she said, subsequently she had indeed miraculously conceived a child whom the angel had said “is to be called holy, the son of God,” a child who would grow up to be given the throne of David and reign forever and save his people from their sins.

What do you think Joseph felt, or thought, at that moment? I imagine something like this: “What? Are you crazy? You are ‘with child,’ is it? Not mine, of course, for we have certainly not lain together! But, you say you have lain with no other man? I’m supposed to believe that? And this miraculous child ‘of the Holy Spirit,’ will, you say, become king? Herod will certainly have something to say about that… Me, sarcastic? With you telling me about a virgin birth? I’ve heard that stuff from the Babylonian myths and other ancient myths, of course, but honestly, Mary, did you really expect me to believe… You know the consequences of all this. Miraculous or otherwise, you, my dear, pregnant as you are, are subject to being stoned to death, the penalty for such untoward behavior as getting pregnant by someone else when you are already betrothed to me.”

But Joseph, whatever he thought or felt, was, as the Gospel records, “a righteous man, unwilling to make of her a public example, and so he resolved to put her aside quietly.” Shows a lot of forbearance and compassion, wouldn’t you say? How would you feel if your fiancé turned up with such a story?

Well, poor Joseph, grieved though he may have been, wasn’t allowed to get away that easy. Oh, no. The same troublesome angel showed up in Joseph’s own dreams and told him to go ahead and marry this woman but not to lie with her until after the child was born, because all that she had said was true.

And, the Bible says, Joseph did just that. Putting aside whatever he may have felt for himself, he gave Mary the sanctity of marriage and took care of her while the child who, so the story went, grew in her womb.

And so it is that we find them both, on that first Christmas Eve, traveling to Bethlehem, the city of David, because of the decree of Caesar Augustus, who had decided to take a census of the population of the Roman Empire and so had ordered everyone to go back to the place of their birth to be counted. What a ridiculous notion, I’d say. But Caesar was Caesar. So Joseph, with Mary, who was “great with child,” traveled for about a week from Galilee to Bethlehem, about 80 miles, with Mary riding a donkey, through country settled by unfriendly tribes, a territory as one writer notes “…dry, rocky, tortured country, riddled with caves which served as hide-outs for the bandits who terrorized the roads.”

Joseph, it seems, had to walk, while Mary rode, precariously perched on a donkey, hoping not to miscarry the child of God. And I imagine Joseph, like any good husband, felt responsible for her safety and well being, and so watched out for trouble while they made frequent stops to rest, providing her food, pitching her a tent or finding whatever lodging could be had as they passed through such hostile territory. No easy task for our Joseph.

And then, they arrived, at last, in Bethlehem, a friendly city, thanks be to God. But, just Joseph’s luck, there was no room at the Inn. Sleep in the barn with the donkey.

Make a clean place for Mary to lie down, Joseph, because it looks as though she is going into labor. Dear God, not now, surely, here in a stable, with no doctor or midwife or family nearby! Oh, yes. So, presumably, it is an anxious Joseph who must have delivered the child, since the Bible mentions no other. Joseph boiled the water, mopped her brow for hours, encouraged her to push or pant or do whatever it took to deliver this child of the Holy Spirit out into Joseph’s waiting hands. It was Joseph, we assume, who gently caught the child, tied the knot and cut the cord, wiped the child free of birthing blood and sticky white stuff, cleared out Jesus’ throat and made him cry, and at last laid him in Mary’s arms.

Then, of course, Joseph had to bathe Mary, take away the bloody cloths, bring fresh straw or blankets or whatever, find her something to eat, and do all the rest of the many things that must be done after a birth, after the miracle of any birth.

Did anyone thank Joseph? Did anyone consider him? The wise men showed up, a while later, having been led by a star from somewhere far away to the east. No mention is made of what they said to an exhausted Joseph. They knelt before Jesus and Mary, of course, and gave them gifts. And the shepherds came, and angels sang, and all that. But I imagine Joseph standing to one side, watching all this with what must have been mixed feelings. After all his selfless care and devotion and work, he is once again on the sidelines, watching his wife and this baby receive all the adulation.

And, of course, we aren’t finished yet. Once again Joseph dreams, maybe two weeks later. This time the angel tells him to get up in the middle of the night and take Mary and the child and flee into Egypt.

Great Scott, we just traveled 80 difficult miles, and you want me to leave tonight for Egypt?

Yes, because King Herod is going to kill every child in the whole territory less than two years old because those same wise men who worshipped Jesus and Mary weren’t wise enough to keep their mouths shut about this new baby who is going to become king, a notion King Herod is, as Joseph predicted, not too happy about. So the angel wants Joseph to get them all the heck out of there, now.

Like I said, Joseph is undervalued in the tradition. What does he do? He actually does get himself up, get things together, and off they go in the middle of the night.

Mary, mind you, is still mending from delivering a child, bleeding, sore, nursing, hormones raging. Jesus is tiny and fragile, even if he is the Son of God. So who must take care of them? You got it. Joseph it is.

They go all the way to Egypt, Joseph giving up his carpentry business back home, as well as his own family and friends. Joseph, making his way somehow in a foreign land, among strangers, whose language he probably has to learn before he can give anybody a bid for a carpentry job. But he does it all, apparently successfully. For in Egypt they live for several years.

Until the angel shows up again in a dream and tells Joseph that Herod is dead now and so the danger is past and Joseph should take Mary and Jesus back home, staying for awhile in various other cities in the Holy Land, so that all the Biblical prophesies can be fulfilled-that the savior came out of Egypt, out of Nazareth, out of Bethlehem, etc.

After that, we don’t hear much of anything about Joseph. Mary and Jesus both continue to be big players, but Joseph disappears from the story after Jesus is a young boy, visiting the temple and wowing the sages there, causing his mother and Joseph to marvel.

Again, I don’t mean to sound sacrilegious, or to take anything away from Mary. I am a woman who has given birth, and believe, me the thought of riding 80 miles on a donkey and then giving birth in a stable, and then, shortly thereafter, going again, presumably on the same donkey, to Egypt, does not allow me to discount Mary’s courage. But every Christmas Eve, for some reason, I remember Joseph.

So, on Christmas Eve each year, I honor Joseph. I like to take time to say “Thank you,” not only to the legendary Joseph of the Bible, but to the Joseph within each of us, which is that part of us that gets called upon to rise up, regardless of unfairness or injustice, and to be noble. Most of us have felt put upon by God at times, whether we will admit it or not. Most of us have had to work hard and do things for the greater good, things for which we go unrewarded, even unnoticed. I think, too, of those of us who are able, like Joseph, to find the grace to forgive someone we love for disappointing our dreams.

If we think of the birth of Jesus, also, as a metaphor for the emergence of our own spiritual being, and Mary as the innocence and purity within us from which this comes, then Joseph is the part of us that may have to set aside worldly desires and or our own sense of self importance, instead to persevere with strong self-discipline toward our higher good. The Joseph in us has to act in accordance with what serves the best in us, although it does not serve, may even dismay, our own egotistical desires.

We are, in our spiritual development, called upon to put aside our own desires and plans and to do what is called for under difficult circumstances, and we must somehow find the strength to do it. To keep our spiritual self alive, we sometimes have to do extraordinary things. So, like Joseph, many of us have walked through alien territory, trying to make our way along unknown pathways, trusting in something that sometimes seems absurd and difficult.

Most of us have also been in Joseph’s shoes, not the star of the story, but a member of the supporting cast. Most of us, though, somehow find it in ourselves to be unselfish, to be devoted to something higher than our own needs. Most of us understand the concept of service.

And, I think, it is upon the work and service of us all that the birth and advancement of all that is holy depends.

And so it is that I write to you, this Christmas Eve, to thank you for who you are-in hard times, in incomprehensible circumstances, in the challenges of our own time. Perhaps with the economy the way it is and the global political situation the way it is, we can all feel a certain kinship with Joseph. Perhaps, like Joseph, some of us are in situations where we say, “What did I do to deserve this? You want me to sacrifice? I’ve already done that and more. But, well, for the good of the family, or the environment, or my neighbor, or my country, or Spirit, well…”

So I say this night, this Christmas Eve, blessings on you, Josephs, one and all. Also Marys, children, wise ones, shepherds, and all the rest of you.

May your holy days be blessed.

Whatever your spiritual tradition, perhaps you too can remember the legendary story of Joseph, and take heart.

However it looks at first, however difficult it is, good will come of this.

You are all midwives of Glory.

Glenda Taylor, 2008

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