As I was setting up our nativity scene this year, I noticed the wisdom and cultural/racial diversity of the Magi, the docile farm animals (not minding the afterbirth on their food despite being herbivores), the grace and adoration of the Madonna with outstretched arms (and nary a stretch mark) toward the cooing babe, the aloof Boticelli-like angel who frankly doesn’t look like she’s that into it, and then I noticed Joseph’s face, searching vainly for some family resemblance as he peers down at Baby Jesus. Often pushed aside in favor of the other players, Joseph is clearly the unsung hero of the Nativity.
Why is Joseph the unsung hero of this story? While he is not a principle player (the mother & child take those roles), he is also not one of the quirky supporting cast members to this scene. Among all the players, he is the one person who had the most power to create a very different narrative to this story. Consider the following from Matthew:
18 Now the bbirth of Jesus Christ was con this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. (“Before they came together” could mean marriage or consummation, or in other words, Joseph knew he wasn’t the father. “She was found” also makes it sound as though he discovered it because it was evident rather than through a spontaneous confession.)
19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick aexample, was bminded to cput her away privily. (IOW, he wasn’t buying this “found with child of the HG” story, but he was also a mensch. He could have been outraged, humiliated, veangeful, etc. There are frankly some current examples of women in the middle east in similar situations that end quite differently.)
20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a adream, saying, Joseph, thou son of bDavid, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the cHoly Ghost. (Now I’ve had some pretty cool dreams, but this is a rather important matter to rely on a dream. He didn’t even have a visitation, just a dream. Surely he had plenty of times he had to doubt this.)21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his aname bJESUS: for he shall csave his people from their sins.22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,23 aBehold, a bvirgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his cname dEmmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (So, Joseph is basically marrying into a situation in which he, the man in a male-dominated society, has to play the role of father to a kid that isn’t his and he gets no say in naming the kid and even his say in how the kid will be raised is questionable. Plus, a bunch of pressure because of who the kid’s Father is. This took a lot of faith and humility.)24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his awife:25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her afirstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. (So, a delayed honeymoon as well–more inconvenience to Joseph–just to make it totally clear who the Father was.)