Gentle Joseph

Once again on Christmas I thought a little bit about Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. During Jesus’ childhood, Joseph was no doubt considered his father by the people who knew the family, but two millennia of Christians have considered God to be the father of Jesus, which seems to mean that Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather.

Jesus and Mary get most of the attention at Christmas because of Christians’ belief in their direct semi-biological connections to God. I have always thought Joseph deserved more attention than he usually receives, since he was, after all, Jesus’ role model for a good human father, dispenser of encouragement, discipline, guidance, and perhaps even wisdom. Jesus apparently took up carpentry as a trade to follow in his human father’s footsteps.

Within the actual Christmas story, Joseph demonstrates courage, humility, and compassion, despite the fact that Mary is pregnant with a child who is not his own. No wonder the adult Jesus, the charismatic rabbi, was so impressed with the meek. While Jesus was still a small child, Joseph showed more courage and compassion in the family’s flight to Egypt, in an attempt to escape Herod’s decree to murder Jewish tykes like Jesus.

In Christian hymns and literature, Joseph is referred to as “Gentle Joseph.” In our current cultural and political environment, gentleness (not to mention meekness) is too often mocked as weakness, naivete, or impractical idealism. We seem to have lost appreciation for the notion of gentleness as a sign of civilized behavior, the capacity to live in peace among other civilized people, as opposed to barbarism. As the modern world dawned, people in the English-speaking world began to call aristocrats and civilized men “gentlemen,” and that meant something for a long time.

Mary’s mission to give birth to the Son of God was originally announced to her by an angel, but it’s clear to me that her legal husband Joseph was also driven and guided by what Abraham Lincoln many centuries later called “the better angels of our nature.” You don’t even have to be a Christian believer to find this story inspiring.