In some ways Joseph is the most enigmatic figure in the nativity story. To reflect on the character of Joseph, read the following passages aloud for discussion: Luke 2:3–5, 39–40; Matthew 1:18–25; 2:13–15.
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” — which means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20–23 NIV)
Joseph, a merciful man who loved God and was betrothed to a woman whose unexpected news perplexed him deeply, had a decision to make, and it was not a pleasant one.
- How many times in Matthew 1:18-2:23 did God speak to Joseph through an angel in his dreams?
The angel appeared in Joseph’s dreams, not to his face – a less tangible revelation than Mary had to go on. Yet because of the message of Immanuel, Joseph was willing to set out wherever he might be sent.
In the nativity, set the figure of Joseph on his back for any nights when he will be hearing from an angel in his dreams. (See photo below)
- What effect did Joseph’s decision have upon his reputation?
G. K. Chesterton wrote a novel, Four Faultless Felons, consisting of the stories of people who, in order to act rightly, chose to act in some way that made them appear to be felons. Does this describe Joseph? Is he a “faultless felon” in Chesterton’s sense?
- How does scripture indicate that Joseph was a man attentive to God?
He was attentive to God, as well as to Mary and to the needs of those around him. For example, did Joseph spend more time speaking than listening and acting?
After receiving the dreams, Joseph did not ask God, how these things could be, as had Zechariah. Does the fact that there are no speaking parts attributed to Joseph support the idea that he was attentive to God?
- How did the angel describe to Joseph the child that would be born to Mary?
With the angel’s mysterious explanation that God is Immanuel, “with us,” incarnate in Mary’s child, Joseph was comforted and made strong in his faith (com = “with” [intensifier]; fortis = “strength”). See the previous post on the meaning of Immanuel.
Joseph and Mary would see great hardships, from their first months together to their last. Yet the angel’s tidings of Immanuel encouraged Joseph always to take to heart the guidance angels delivered in his dreams.
Joseph chose to suffer for the sake of others, to act mercifully and humbly, to be attentive to God, and to follow in the way of love. As we meditate upon the meaning of Immanuel, let us find strength to face our trials and hardships in the spirit of Joseph.
- What did Matthew mean by describing Joseph as a “righteous man”?
Was Joseph a legalist with a strict attention to the letter of the law? Or, in Hebrew piety, was a “righteous man” rather one who understands that mercy is the end of the law?
Compare Hosea 6:6 and Micah 6:8. Do these Old Testament dictums show that the purpose of the law is mercy; that righteousness means setting right? That the law lies within the scope of mercy; that it is never interpreted aright apart from mercy? That far from being an exception to law, mercy is the law’s ground and being?
If so, how might we sometimes misread the Psalms and other biblical statements about righteousness?
In contrast to many misconceptions about righteousness, Joseph long before had taken to heart the Old Testament spirit of mercy. This habitual practice occurred before the beginning of Matthew’s story, and it was a prerequisite for Joseph’s ability to be attentive to God. (See my post on Columbo.)
- Listen to Michael Card’s “Joseph’s Song.”
Card’s book The Promise contains a brief reflection on the character of Joseph: Michael Card, The Promise , pp. 18-22.
- Listen to “The Angel Gabriel,” by Steve Bell
- Discuss the work of carpentry. Do you know a carpenter or a craftsman who works with wood? Do you work with wood yourself? Visit a furniture or woodworker’s shop if you can, and learn about woodworking tools.
- Read aloud: A wonderful Christmas story related to woodcarving is Susan Wojciechowski, Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey.
- Plant an evergreen as a reminder of Joseph’s care for wood, a symbol of our eternal life in Christ, and to replenish the trees cut down for Christmas this year.
- Read aloud: Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, pp. 38-45.
- Read aloud: “My Son,” by Armand Currie; in Stories for Christmas, ed. Mary Virginia Robinson (1967).
Rachel adjusting the nativity set; we never worried about anything breaking!
See also Christmas nights at home.