“The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn't know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.”
I have peeled back the leather door on this third morning of Advent. The man I see is dear to me for special reasons. He is the stepfather of the son of God.
Joseph is kneeling beside the manger where his tiny boy lay sleeping.
He stares for a long while at the little baby sleeping in the straw. He turns his head and glances at his tiny teenage bride exhausted and sleeping on a pile of dirty hay. He feels his rugged face turn crimson.
This has been a hard year for Joseph. This girl was his promised bride and a year ago they were betrothed. This year the marriage would be completed and consummated.
But somehow, during that time, Mary wound up pregnant. She told Joseph about it before she told anyone else.
Joseph considered ending the betrothal right then and there, but he is a kind man, and deep in his heart he loved her. Still, this sort of thing will ruin her reputation and that of the baby. And it would doom him as well. He has a struggling carpentry shop and he doesn't need to be the butt of innuendo and private jokes about his wife and son.
Still, the way Mary told him the story, about the vision, and God speaking to her. He was almost convinced to believe her anyway and then God spoke to him in a dream of his own. He confirmed what Mary had said and so Joseph took her into his home and decided to let people think what they wanted.
Now here they were in Bethlehem because Caesar wanted to tax all the Jews and he ordered them to go to their hometown. It was Mary's hometown too...both of them were in David's lineage after all. They started off with other members of their family but because Mary was so far along in her pregnancy now, they couldn't keep up with the caravan.
By the time they made Bethlehem, all the available rooms were gone. They knocked on every door and even asked some relatives who lived in Bethlehem for a place to sleep. Maybe it was because of Mary's condition...or maybe it was the rumors that were flying around about the baby...whatever the reason, nobody had a place for them. All they could find was this cave. An empty hole in the side of a hill where a couple of dozen sheep had been staying. They had to crawl into it and they could barely stand up. It was dark and dank and cold, and it smelled terribly.
They didn't have time to clean it before Mary went into labor. Joseph had never seen childbirth before and he was scared. They didn't know a midwife and so he and Mary just had to figure it out as they went. Mary's tiny body was wracked with pain and at one point Joseph thought he'd lost her. Eventually it was done and their son was born. In all the commotion neither of them heard the angels outside.
They only found out about them because a few hours later, some local shepherds stopped by to worship this child and they spoke of a star in the night, and a host of angels telling them about Jesus. There were four shepherds. Their stories were incredible.
Joseph was considering all of this as he knelt by his tiny son's cradle. He reached his hand in and touched the sleeping boy. Joseph whispered as to not wake his tiny wife.
"Jesus...I am humbled. I hardly know what to say to you. I believe now...I wrestled with it before but now...I believe. Truly you are from God and this was all part of some plan of His. I don't understand. The shepherds speak in terms of "Messiah" and "Savior" and "Emmanuel".
That means "God with us", my son. Is this true?
Are you really God in the flesh? Are you the Promised One?" Joseph pauses and collects his thoughts, "I am honored to take this role in your life. I always wanted a son. I will do my best to be the best dad I can be. I will seek the will of your Father as I raise you, and try my best to be a blessing to you. I feel so unworthy. I am sorry that this is all we had for your birthplace -we are very poor- I have nothing to offer you."
Joseph chokes back a few tears at this point. He is still a man after all. He is a husband and he loves his wife and he has grown to love this boy. Like any man, he wanted better for his family but timing and poverty were against him.
The baby stirs and cries softly. Joseph reaches down and picks him up and pulls him to the folds of his robe. He kisses the baby Jesus on his tiny lips and he feels the softness. He whispers” I love you my son...my Lord”. The baby seems to smile the slightest smile and then falls asleep in Joseph’s arms with his head pressed against his heart.
Joseph closes his eyes in a prayer and rocks his boy slowly. He is thinking. Thinking about the twists and turns his life has taken in the last year or so. Thinking about the tiny woman sleeping in the straw. Thinking about this child and all those dreams and visions and this place...this cave. The enormity of fatherhood rolls over him like a wave on the shore. I see the look on Joseph’s face. I remember that feeling.
Being a stepfather is difficult enough, but to be stepfather to a child whom the angels have proclaimed the Son of God? To have no defense against the whispers…at least no defense anyone would ever believe. This is a lot for any man to bear and this man is just like any of us. But somehow holding this child tonight gives him the courage and the determination to do his very best. Like anyone who loves children, this man finds a love growing in him for this baby and his resolve to be a great dad for him is firm. He will do the job God has called him to do, and he will let history determine his success. He is Joseph -Jesus’ earthly dad- and the whole circumstance has left him shipwrecked at the stable.
“Almost anyone can be a father…
…but only a special man can be a dad.”