Matthew’s Gospel opens with the famous genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham, the father of Isaac, and ending fourteen generations later with Joseph, who is referred to as “the husband of Mary” (Mt 1:1-16a). This is the only time Joseph is referred to in this way, and it reminds me of John Kennedy’s quip about being “the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.”
Husbands get short shrift in Scripture, and Joseph has played second violin ever since the Christmas story was first told. But I think he deserves better treatment. Why?
First of all, the obvious reason. He takes Mary into his home even though she is pregnant and has told him a ridiculous tale about the Spirit of the Lord coming upon her. When he decides to divorce her “quietly” (Mt 1:19), an angel visits him in a dream, corroborating her story and telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife (Mt 1:20). So, this is a man who listens to girls and angels, which makes him a rarity in any age.
Secondly, and more importantly, without Joseph there is no Christmas story. Without Christmas, there is no Incarnation. Without the Incarnation, there is no Resurrection. Without the Resurrection, there is no Redemption. Without Redemption, there is no hope for a world in which Satan holds sway (2 Cor 4:4). All of Christian theology and practice would be a mere abstraction or like a dream dimly recalled. Emmanuel, God among us, never would have taken on such immediacy.
Joseph’s role is best exemplified in the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt (Mt 2:13-23). He heeds the message of yet another angel in a dream and flees with the child and Mary to Egypt (Mt 2:13). For a time, he is the only thing standing between life and death for Jesus. Without his protection and quick action, Jesus could have been slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers in what is known as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents (Mt 2:16-18). Further, Mary’s “yes” to God would have become short-lived and pointless. History would have been turned upside down. Think of Bedford Falls without George Bailey.
This template of masculinity in which a husband provides for and protects his family has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. Today, it is seen less as a function of gender and more of personality. That is, anyone can provide for and protect a family by force of personality and will. Gender has become fluid. Family, too, has changed so that roles are free-flowing.
But while Mary and Joseph said yes to God, they did so in different ways. They had roles to fulfill, and Joseph’s was a supporting one. There is no indication that he objected to it or did anything other than follow God’s will as he understood it. That takes not only faith but courage and humility. The ridicule would not have been any less in first-century Palestine than it would be today. Yet, he married Mary and then led both her and the child to safety when warned in a dream.
You could say that Joseph’s yes to God was even more profound than Mary’s, because he was older. Presumably, he knew the score. He knew what the world is like and what it can throw at you. And even though they did not have curve balls back then, he was used to swinging at them, especially under Roman occupation. So, although I would not call Mary’s virtue “cloistered,” to quote Milton, Joseph’s was harder to maintain. He had no illusions about his role. I’m pretty sure he would have accompanied Jackie to Paris.
Now that’s a mensch.