Rehabilitating Joseph

In my poem, “Joseph Dreams,” (December 7) I try to imagine the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective. I base my surmising from the plain meaning of the text in Matthew 1:18-25, describing the dilemma Joseph had when he learned that Mary was pregnant and how his dilemma was solved by the angel of the Lord appearing to him in a dream.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Christmas itself as a celebration began to gain weight and significance within Western culture. In the early church and for many centuries thereafter, the main celebration of the year centered around the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus at Eastertide. But during the Middle Ages, Christmas captured the imagination of common people. The Christmas Carol as a genre did not originate so much in the church but in the popular village celebrations of Christmas. It was a grass roots phenomenon, perhaps like how the composing and singing of Psalms in the Old Testament emerged outside of the sacrificial system ordained by Moses.

But as the common folk appropriated the great salvation story of the New Testament, and especially that aspect of it revealed in the Incarnation, various legendary notions began to attach themselves to the Christmas story. The Cherry Tree Carol is a good example. “When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he / He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee…” The carol pictures Joseph as a jealous old guardian of Mary instead of a man close to her age and a loving husband. In much of the Medieval and Renaissance art work depicting the Nativity, Joseph looks old enough to be Mary’s father.

But there is no warrant from Scripture to believe this. It’s far more likely that Joseph, while he may have been several years older than Mary, was close to her age. Matthew himself records for us that Joseph was righteous—not with the righteousness of the Pharisees which could be punctilious and mean-spirited—but with the classic Old Testament righteousness which was full of goodness and mercy. Even when he found out that Mary was with child, he wanted to treat her as carefully and as considerately as he could (Matt. 1:19). God could not have picked a better foster father for his Son. You could consider my poem, “Joseph Dreams,” as my contribution toward rehabilitating Joseph in the popular imagination.

Posted by Thomas Worth

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