Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 3

JOSEPH
The Devout Carpenter

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

Joseph was spending this sabbath as he spent every other. This was the established holy day of the week for him and his people, and there was never even a temptation for him to keep his carpenter's shop open on Saturdays.

No matter how much work there was to be done, no matter how many of his customers were clamoring for yokes, plows, or tables, no matter how much he needed the income from another day's work -- the sabbath belonged to the Lord. Before three stars could be seen in the sky on Friday, the tools of his trade were put away. The pleasant smells of sawdust and wood shavings were surrendered in favor of the sights and sounds of the Nazareth synagogue.

The service began today, as always, with a recitation of the ancient Shema. This familiar call to prayer and worship (cf. Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) reminded Joseph and the other worshippers why they had assembled: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

Next there had been a prayer, followed by a reading from the Torah and then one from the Prophets. He had learned to love the words of these sacred texts as a boy in this same synagogue. The language he had learned from daily use in his parents' home was Aramaic. It was the language spoken by his people since the time of their captivity in Babylon. But the Hebrew tongue in which Scripture was preserved was important enough that the sons of most devout families still studied it. With many boys his own age, he had learned ancient Hebrew here. Though not scholarly enough to be a synagogue reader, he loved to hear the words intoned again each week from the synagogue scrolls.

He listened more intently now as the completed readings were translated into his everyday Aramaic vocabulary. He hung on every word, believing that they were the words of Yahweh as communicated through human vessels. From week to week, various rabbis would present brief discourses they had prepared on the readings. The quality of the presentations was a bit uneven, but Joseph was the sort of man who would listen with the humility of one who believed he could learn something from any rabbi who spoke. Joseph was not a rabbi, but he secretly dreamed that one or more of the sons he hoped to have one day might be.

Today Joseph's mind was wandering a bit. It wasn't that the layman-teacher -- for the rabbis were learned men of the community rather than ordained, professional teachers -- was doing a poor job or that Joseph was uninterested in the study of Scripture. But as he got near the synagogue today, he had caught a glimpse of Mary. She was always in his thoughts. Now that he had seen her at a distance, his mind was hopelessly preoccupied with her.

Until today's sighting, he had not seen Mary for three months. Unaware that she was planning to leave Nazareth, he had suddenly missed her. Her family told him that she had gone to visit a cousin who lived about seventy miles away in the hill country of Judea. Joseph had sensed that even they were somewhat mystified by her trip. She and her old-enough-to-be-her-mother cousin had never been particularly close that anyone recalled, but it had seemed suddenly important for Mary to see her.

As he sat near the back of the synagogue -- for there was an appointed order of seating, with the oldest and most distinguished men in the front seats -- he could see her face. Oh, not literally, for males and females were always separated from each other by a screen during the service. But his mind kept calling up images of her beautiful features.

Joseph had always respected Mary's family. Then, as he began to notice her in particular, he was impressed with a maturity that seemed beyond her years. She worked and played with the girls her own age, yet she somehow seemed set apart from them in Joseph's mind. So, when the time came for Joseph to choose a bride, there was no great difficulty for him. Among the few marriageable girls of Nazareth, any other was a distant second choice for him. He made his wishes known to his family, and there had been no dissent. The arrangements between the families of Joseph and Mary were made quickly and with eagerness among both families.

The formal betrothal of the two had been a day of exquisite joy for them. Joseph felt a sense of pride in this public declaration of his financial and social right to create his own family and to assume the responsibility for it. He also felt a sense of pride in Mary, knowing that any number of other men at his age and contemplating marriage had shared his view of her desirability.

The synagogue service was moving toward its conclusion now. The whole assembly was singing together. Some of the favorite psalms of the Nazareth synagogue were being sung in their customary antiphonal manner. The cantor would sing a short section, and the whole group would respond in unison. Some being sung today were so familiar to Joseph and the others that they could have sung them through without the cantor's promptings.

Then, with the closing prayers and benedictions, the service ended, and the assembly began breaking up. Some stood inside or near the door to talk. But Joseph had no time for idle conversation today. He moved outside quickly and took a position that would allow him to watch the worshippers as they left. He wanted to see Mary, to speak to her, to let her know how much he had missed her. He wanted to ask about her visit with her cousin. Did he have her name right? He recalled that Mary's father had called her Elizabeth.

Yet he knew he could not say all he wanted to say or ask too many questions. There was propriety to consider. For his own sake and for hers, any conversation would have to be brief. It would be best if several family members were nearby. For, although they were engaged to be married, custom did not allow them time alone with each other. All that would have to wait until after the marriage proper.

As a man significantly older than Mary, Joseph felt it was more his responsibility than hers to be sure that their relationship was kept absolutely honorable. There would be no indiscretions. There would be no invitations to whisperers. This righteous man would act as a son of the covenant should toward his betrothed, and there would be no hint of anything improper between them.

Then he saw her. She was the same beautiful girl his mind had conjured up during the synagogue service. But somehow she was different, too. Her smile seemed a bit nervous. Her eyes had a sense of pleading about them. And she was walking directly toward him. Had something happened while she was away? Was there bad news about her cousin or her family?

"Joseph," said Mary, "we must talk. There is something you have to know. I cannot bear to keep it from you any longer, but I fear what you may do."

Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Joseph's heartbeat quickened, and he felt his face begin to flush. He was conscious of his big hands tightening into tense fists and his whole body coming taut. What was so terrible in Mary's mind that she was both anxious to tell him but afraid of his response to it?

Could she be having second thoughts about the marriage? As the time was getting closer, was she frightened of leaving home or of becoming his wife? Perhaps it was some horrible news from her cousin's home. Maybe there had been a death or family tragedy. Had there been some scandal that Mary feared would reflect on Joseph? But, no, her cousin lived seventy miles away; he would not be intimidated for his reputation in Nazareth over something that happened in the life of Mary's cousin so far away. Few in Nazareth would ever hear of it anyway, in all likelihood.

Yes, they needed to talk. And Joseph would be patient with the teenager's fears without seeming to condescend to her. If there was bad news from Judea, he would set her mind at ease. He would express sympathy and concern. He would reassure her that nothing happening that far away would be an obstacle to their plans here in Nazareth.

Joseph discretely stepped back and motioned for Mary to walk a few steps with him away from the people milling around. Yet he was careful that they not walk too far away, stand in shadows, or seem clandestine. Propriety could not be abandoned. Joseph was big on propriety. So, while respecting Mary's request to talk with him, he would not forget that others would have to see that their behavior was above reproach.

"What is so heavy on your heart?" he asked. "I have missed you and would like to talk with you about your trip. Is that what you want to talk about?"

Mary didn't look at Joseph. She stared at the ground. A sense of panic was rising in her spirit, and she was starting to doubt that she could speak at all. She was wondering if she had made a mistake in asking to talk with him. Perhaps she should have tried to talk with her own family first, then allow one of them to talk with Joseph.

Joseph interrupted her thoughts and spoke again. He almost reached out to touch her shoulder and turn her body directly toward himself, but he caught himself immediately. That would not be proper. Joseph's parents had both taught him that propriety in a man's relationship with a woman is all-important. He would do nothing to step over that invisible boundary, even though he felt an instinctive compassion for the agony of soul he sensed in Mary. For the first time in his thoughts in months, he saw her again as a little girl. She was scared and confused. She was about to cry.

"Mary, please tell me. Perhaps I can help," he said. "Surely there is nothing so terrible as you are imagining this to be."

"Joseph," she said, looking into his eyes now for the first time since she spoke to him, "I am going to have a baby. It was announced to me by an angel and confirmed to me by my cousin Elizabeth. Joseph, the baby I am carrying does not belong to a human father but was placed in my womb by the Spirit of God."

He heard himself gasp, and he saw the anxious look on Mary's face as she looked away from him and in the direction of the synagogue. In his own mind, Joseph immediately connected what Mary had just said with the synagogue. Had she been guilty of blasphemy today by daring to enter it? How could she enter that holy place of worship in her condition? And how dare she concoct such a story to explain her unfaithfulness to him! How dare she speak of a baby conceived by the Spirit of God!

Joseph's mind was racing: "How could she betray me to do such a thing?" "How could I have been so wrong about her?" "Who is the father of her baby?" "What should I do?" "How can I stand the embarrassment and humiliation when this becomes a matter of public record?" "Will people think that I am responsible for her pregnancy?"

Joseph's theory had always been that faithful sons of Israel were spared such things as this. It was too much for him to take in at once. He had no response for Mary. He didn't know what to say to her. So he simply turned away and walked toward home. He had never been so confused in all his life.

Over the next couple of days, Joseph did not see Mary. As a matter of fact, he purposefully avoided any place where he might have expected her to be. He had to be alone. He had to think. He had to make the hardest decision of his life.

During the day, he worked to the point of exhaustion in his shop. Yet hard work was not enough of a distraction to drive the matter out of his mind for more than a moment at the time. The few people who came by his shop were not really welcome, for he was in no mood for small talk.

The nights were harder still. In spite of a full day of hard work, he could not sleep well. What sleep there was came in short snatches. It was fitful, restless sleep. So he prayed. He tried to recall what the Torah said about such cases and how they were to be handled. What would be the proper thing for him to do?

Things as they appeared to be left Joseph no choice. As a devout Israelite, he would have to end his relationship with Mary. There would have to be a divorce. Yet the very thought of going through with it made him sick at his stomach. He had no real fear of Mary being stoned -- though the Law of Moses provided for the death penalty in such cases. That sentence had not been executed in Israel for generations in adultery cases. And with Rome reserving the death penalty to its own courts exclusively in all territories conquered by the empire, that would not happen.

Other things would happen to Mary, though, and thoughts of them bothered Joseph terribly. For starters, there would be shame and expulsion from the community. Disgrace would extend to her entire family. He had unpleasant visions of Mary caring for an illegitimate child. He knew that most women in those circumstances wound up supporting themselves either by selling themselves into slavery or by becoming prostitutes.

Was it possible that Mary's story was true? Could an angel have told her that she was bearing a child for God? Joseph knew the story of Sarah's son in her old age and of Hannah's child after painful years of infertility. But Abraham and Elkanah were the fathers of those children. There was no precedent in Hebrew history or Scripture for a virginal conception.

Apparently he had been wrong about Mary all along. Perhaps she was crazy. But he would not -- no, could not -- accept her far-fetched story.

Joseph was therefore torn between the conflicting demands of law and love. There was no doubt that he still loved Mary. Yet neither was there any doubt as to what he must do. His heart wanted to believe anything that would exonerate Mary and allow him to have her as his wife. His head kept telling his heart that he had no choice but to end the betrothal by divorce. It was the only proper thing for a decent man to do.

According to Jewish custom, the divorce could take place publicly before a court or privately with no more than two witnesses. He had no intention of exposing Mary to public disgrace, so he began thinking of candidates whom he might ask to witness the discreet ceremony of writing a divorce certificate at the synagogue. The man of honor and integrity would follow the requirements of the Law of Moses; the man of compassion and gentleness would nevertheless be sensitive to Mary.

With his mind settled about what must be done now, Joseph was so exhausted that he fell asleep quickly that night. He would act tomorrow to settle the matter. For his sake and for hers, it would not be drawn out over a long period of time. Tonight he would rest his tortured heart with sleep.

As he slept, however, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. "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," the angel said to him. "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."

When Joseph awakened, he had no doubts that his dream had been a clear communication from Yahweh. He knew the Old Testament precedent of God speaking to men in dreams. He had never had such a dream before, but he had no reservation about accepting this as an authoritative word from God. Mary had told him the truth! How could he face her now? How could he tell her what he had intended to do tomorrow? Would she find it in her heart to forgive him? The tables were suddenly turned on Joseph!

He didn't have time to think about such things or to prepare a contrite speech for her. He had to find Mary. He had to tell her about his dream. He had to bring her home with him that very day, if she would come. He would not wait for the wedding feast that had been planned. He would make her his wife today. He would let the townspeople think whatever they would. He would obey the word from God, claim Mary as his wife, and protect the precious child she would bear.

Although it was still early in the day, Joseph rushed to Mary's home. He insisted on seeing her. "It is urgent," he insisted. "I must talk to her."

No one in Mary's family had ever seen Joseph so agitated and assertive about anything. Knowing that it must be important, they called for Mary. And the little girl who had been so frightened during the past few days of Joseph's silence was overwhelmed now by all that he had to say.

The words came in a torrent. He told of the dream. He described the angel and repeated the explanation he brought. He recounted the command. Then, compelled by his guilty conscience, he began to tell of what he had been thinking before the dream. But Mary stopped it.

"Shhh. Don't!" she pleaded. "How could you have believed without a sign? Your dream is another sign to me that the impossible is really happening! We will believe it together now. We will wait for more signs that God will surely give. We will wait for the birth of the baby. And God will be with us."

"And God will be with us," repeated Joseph.



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