Out of all the people in our Holy Book, I think I might be one of the most mysterious. People debate about me all the time. Some say that I was young, in my early twenties, when I decided to marry. After all, that is when the average man got married in my day. Then others say that I was older when I married her, that it was my second marriage, that I already had a few kids by my first wife who died young.
Some say I was a well-learned man, that I had a formal education, that I taught my son the Law. Then others claim that I didn’t know much at all, at least in book smarts. The truth is, you don’t read much about me in scripture at all. My name is Joseph, the carpenter. And I am the earthly father of Jesus Christ.
If you came here today seeking the details of my life, I must confess, you will be disappointed. But if you came to hear to listen to my story – and the struggle I’ve been in – then maybe you won’t be disappointed at all.
I’ve loved her for months – at least I thought I did – before I had my uncle, the elder of our family, approach her father about a marriage bargain. A few days later, the deal was struck. In the presence of our family elders, she and I formally met one another for the first time.
Mary has always been vivacious – even when she was a little girl. She was always helping her neighbor, always giving herself to other people. But she never sought out the attention of men, the way other teenage girls tend to do – so our paths rarely crossed.
I could have sought her out before our betrothal, but I’m not particularly good with words. As a result, I don’t talk much. What could I say? I’ve always used my hands to express myself – putting all my love and attention into things I do, the works I create, and the actions I make. There was nothing I could say to a woman like her, one who is, lively, tender, yet passionate about the little things in life. Instead, I listened to what she said when she conversed with other people. And I loved her for the answers she gave.
I loved how she helped the older women at the well each morning. How she coddled her younger siblings and cried when her eldest sister left home with her new husband. And in that time, I grew to love her. I loved her smile, her energy, her heart, and her deep respect for God and his ways. And I watched her become beautiful young woman. So when she became of marriageable age, around 15, I knew it was time to talk to my uncle because I loved her – or so I thought.
It was because I loved this lively, gentle woman that I noticed how pale and withdrawn she was in our first conversation, surrounded by both uncle and father. It was hard to get her to even talk, let alone smile! I wondered if she was withdrawn because I couldn’t hold the conversation well.
I was nervous those first few weeks of our engagement. Mary didn’t seem as joyful as she normally was. She continued to look pale. She didn’t laugh with her friends at the well anymore. On more than one occasion I saw her crying by herself. I wondered if there was another man she wanted to marry. If so, why hadn’t her father mentioned it to my uncle when they came together to discuss our potential future?
I got my answer. We were three weeks into our engagement when Mary came into the family workshop. She was shy as she approached me and she didn’t look me in the eye. I could tell that she didn’t want to speak in front of my other family members because her eyes kept darting to them and then back to the ground. So I guided her out of the shop where we could speak privately. I didn’t want our first real conversation to be in front of my cousins when she was clearly in distress. When we stepped outside into the fading light, she finally looked at me. I smiled. I thought she was beautiful, even then. I really thought I loved her in that moment!
I waited for her to speak, not needing to fill the silence. But what she said left me feeling like I was punched in the gut. She mentioned that it was unfair for our elders to agree to this. That her father didn’t know. My mind started racing, her father didn’t know what? There must be another man she loved! I was right! Why else would she do this? She continued to explain that she was going to leave for her cousin Elizabeth’s house and stay there for a season, if not longer.
I tried to calm her down. I told her that I loved her, that I would provide for her. That she should give me a chance. I told her she was simply nervous and that we could build a life together. Her eyes just welled with tears and she told me the truth.
“No Joseph,” she whispered, “you don’t want me. I’m . . . I’m with child.” I don’t remember much of what she said after that. Something about how it happened before we were even betrothed – how she wasn’t unfaithful to me. She must have seen the anger and disbelief in my eyes because she ran. I didn’t go back into the workshop that night. How could Mary, the woman I loved – the woman who I wanted to raise our children, disrespect me, disrespect our community, disobey God in such a way! I didn’t sleep that night.
The next day she was gone. She waited until the night before she left to tell me. After three weeks of betrothal, she left. I’m not a rash person, nor do I consider myself to be overtly passionate – so I didn’t approach anyone the next day – or for the next few weeks. It was simply too painful. I lost myself in my work. I had made up in my mind to talk to my uncle and Mary’s father, I just hadn’t decided when. But we were going to get divorce.
I wouldn’t tell anyone other than our elders what had happened. She could stay at her cousins and live a different life. I would move on. I could get over her. There are other women I could love. There would be another woman I could give myself to. Another woman I could build a life with. Another woman who could raise our children. I would give my love to another, but never to her. She was not who I thought she was.
Yesterday, I finally decided tell my uncle about what had happened. Finally having made the decision must have been good for my soul, because I fell asleep instantly. But then you’ll never believe what happened. Gabriel visited me. I’m not ready to share with you what he said; it’s still too raw. But you can’t hear something like that and not be changed to your very core.
I must have been in shock even as I slept, but I didn’t wake up. Instead, Gabriel stood with me. He must know me well because he didn’t talk to me the rest of my dream-filled night. His presence was just there as I slept. And that was all I needed to process what he had proclaimed.
So here I am in front of you. Gabriel left me as soon as I awoke. Mary is in a different town – pregnant with a child I will never understand – a child who will be completely different than me. And I am left here with a decision to make.
Mary released me from my love two months ago. She even gave me the grounds to divorce her, one the elders question. After all, it’s not easy to divorce once a betrothal has been set. She released me from loving her – from starting a life with her. She released me from loving a child that is not mine. She released me from the responsibility of providing for her and this God-child.
She released me from the whispers that will surely follow us the rest of our lives. She released me from scandal – from being ostracized by our own families. She released me from the strange life that could lead me to strange lands – that would uproot everything I have built for myself. She released me from all of it. I am now free to pursue love elsewhere.
But last night, as I stood quietly with Gabriel, something awoke in me. Before last night, I thought I loved Mary. I thought I loved my father, and my mother, and the brothers, and my cousins. But after standing in the presence of God’s messenger, Gabriel, I realized that I don’t know love at all.
I felt a taste of true love in my dream. I want to discover more. I want to discover a love that causes one to give up their family, their career, their reputation, their pride, the work of their hands: their very life for another. Yesterday, I was not willing to do that for Mary. I was not willing to do that for this child. I was not even willing to do that for my God who I have served my entire life. I simply wanted a wife to continue building a family with, a son to share my trade with, a God who is approves of what I do from afar. I wanted to continue my legacy.
But now, I want to know love – true, life-producing love. I want to lay down my own family, my career, my reputation, my pride, the work of my hands: my very life for this young woman who I don’t know, for this God-child who is not mine. For this God who is no longer afar, but a God who “is with us”, a tiny God I will hold within my very hands.
I don’t know how to love with my entire life. Maybe this little God-child will show me how to lay down my life in love. Are you watching? Love is coming. Are you waiting? The tiny God-child is coming.