Tomorrow (19 March) is the feast of St Joseph, husband of Mary and earthly-father of Jesus. And we’re celebrating that feast today…because poor Joseph often gets overlooked in the stories of the Nativity. Our focus is naturally drawn to the sacrifice of Mary, and the birth of a baby. And yet Joseph plays a crucial role in so many ways.
In our Friday evening Bible Study on the History of the Bible, we’ve been considering how the present books of the Bible came to be accepted by the church as being authoritative. But we’ve also learned that in the early centuries of the church, there were a number of other writings about Jesus in circulation. One of these early, apocryphal writings was the so-called Proto-gospel of James, a book which actually gave us many of the nativity stories we tell today (and which are not actually in the Bible’s accounts). For example, the Gospel of James gives us the notion of the stable being in a cave (actually on the road to Bethlehem). It offers us the ox and the ass, and the image of Mary riding on a donkey. The Gospel of James also focuses keenly on Mary’s virginity, and it is from the Gospel of James that the idea of her own immaculate conception first arose.
Another key idea from the Gospel of James was that Joseph was a man of mature years – a widower, in fact, who already had children of his own. James tell us that Joseph was selected as a guardian for the twelve-year old Mary, who was then a ward of the Temple. His marriage to her was, according to James, not for procreation, but for legal and social protection – a kind of adoption or fostering arrangement.
This is all speculative, of course. The Gospel of James never gained the authority of the other Gospels which are contained in our Bibles. The Holy Spirit guided the early church to set the Gospel of James aside. They believed that it had been written to advance some particular theological ideas which were being hotly debated at the time. But the Gospel of James does add some colour to our own traditional views of the Nativity, and explains why we still tell parts of the story which don’t appear in the authorised Gospels of our Bibles.
Crucially, James underlines the vital importance of Joseph in the arrival of Jesus into the world. Taken with Matthew’s account (which also features Joseph, much more keenly than Luke) we gain a heroic picture of Joseph – the man who chooses to become a guardian to a 12-year old temple ward, who chooses to stand by Mary, despite the scandal of her pregnancy. He is the caring father-figure who finds shelter on the road (and according to James, even runs off to find a midwife for her!). He is the protector, who obeys God’s instruction to take his new family into exile in Egypt. Even if we question the factual accuracy of some of these stories, they do nevertheless serve to inspire us (as all such stories should). They are consistent with the picture of Joseph we have in the standard Gospels.
In the Bible, consistently, the heroes are always the ones who do what God asks or expects them to do. It’s one of the central, over-riding themes of Scripture, that God always has a plan for his people. Only by following the plan – doing what we are told – can we ever hope to establish God’s lasting rule on earth. The trick, of course, is to understand what God is, or isn’t, telling each of us to do.
According to the prophet Micah, God asks three essential things of us. We are to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Say it with me – ‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’.
These were, in fact, the precise attitudes of Joseph. Doing justice meant that he could not ‘put away’ a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy was not her fault. Loving mercy meant that he needed to offer the protection that she and her baby needed, even to the extent of fleeing into Egypt. Walking humbly with God meant trusting that God’s plan for the baby were far superior to anything that Joseph himself might have tried.
As we begin to inch forward out of lockdown, and into the brave new world of the ‘new normal’ many of us may also be wondering what God wants of each of us – individually and as a society. As individuals, we have learned a great deal about ourselves in the last year. We’ve learned something about what gives each of us joy, and what depresses us. I’ve learned, for example, that having time to write and think is productive time, for me and for my congregation. I plan to do a little less dashing around the parish in the coming days as we beginning to unlock the lockdown!
As a society, we’ve seen that we can make different choices about how we live together, and how we care for the most vulnerable in our midst. We have done justly, and loved mercy. There have been increases in Universal credit, homes for the homeless, food for the poorest families during holidays and lockdowns, furlough payments for otherwise jobless workers, increased donations to foodbanks and NHS charities. Carers have lived in caravans to protect their clients. Medical staff in hospitals across the land have worked their fingers to the bone in service of their communities. We have pulled together, as a society, and a great deal of justice and mercy have been shown.
Have we been transformed by the pandemic? Have we learned something of what Joseph knew – that doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God are life-giving things to do. Only time will tell. Some in our society will shrug their shoulders, after this pandemic, and carry on living in the old ways – ways that are destructive to themselves, to society, and to the planet. But I pray that there will enough of us for whom this pandemic has been life-changing, and paradigm shifting. I pray for an outbreak of people who have learned, with Joseph, the joy of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Amen