It is that time of year again–the time when many churches and Christian schools pull out the old tattered costumes, gather all the children, and organize the Christmas pageant. When I was growing up, every year my little church out in Forsan, Texas, put on a Christmas pageant.
Seems like every year the girl with the sweetest smile was always chosen to be Mary. The tallest boy was assigned the role of Joseph. The littlest ones were made angels. The rowdy ones are asked to be shepherds, and one year when there was a shortage of boys, a couple of girls were the wise men.
At the first practice, the children’s Sunday School teacher passed out a script to every child . . . a script with that child’s speaking parts highlighted. As I think about it now. Every child should have had a script. Every child, that is, except the one playing Joseph. For Joseph should have no script to study. Think about it. Joseph speaks no words in the nativity story. None. He is the silent partner in the adventure, the one who remained quiet in the face of life-changing news.
Joseph speaks no words.
Not when the angel appears to him in a dream to announce the news of Jesus coming.
Not when Joseph accompanies Mary on the long walk to Bethlehem.
Not when Jesus is born or when shepherds and wise men show up.
Joseph speaks no words. Not even one.
Throughout the entire birth narrative Joseph remains silent. And he keeps on remaining silent. Joseph speaks no words when he and Mary take their new baby to the Temple. He speaks no words when they encounter Simeon and Anna. Joseph is quiet during his family’s forced transition from Bethlehem to Egypt. And even twelve years later, when the couple loses their son during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Joseph says nothing. Joseph speaks no words even when they finally find the boy Jesus.
Seems rather odd, doesn’t it. Joseph has a pretty major role in the early years of Jesus’ life story, and yet, he does not have a speaking part. The gospel writers do not record any of his words. Yet somehow in the midst of his quietness, I think if we listen closely we can hear love. See if you don’t hear love too.
Joseph’s first appearance in the gospel is just after he has learned that his fiancé is pregnant. This young woman to whom he is engaged is carrying a child—and it is NOT his. Surely, surely, Joseph felt humiliated, embarrassed, really angry. What man wouldn’t feel betrayed. Yet, Matthew’s gospel account tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, a good man, and despite his own feelings of hurt and jealousy, Joseph chooses kindness. Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy in the most compassionate way he can. He can’t bring himself to forgive what she has done and go on with the marriage, but he decides to handle the situation as quietly as possible. He won’t call attention to her situation. He won’t put her on public display to protect his own reputation or to satisfy his need for revenge. Joseph chooses kindness. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love in his response?
Love treats those who have done wrong, those who have offended, those who have broken the rules with kindness, with compassion. Love chooses kindness over revenge.
A few moments after making the decision to handle the situation with Mary quietly, an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream, and Joseph listens. He hears the explanation. He hears the Lord’s instructions for him, and he wakes up ready to act. He chooses obedience. Joseph quickly hurries over to Mary’s house and assures her that he won’t abandon her. He will honor his commitment to marry her, and he will be a father to her child. Joseph chooses not to seek his own advantage. He refused to be arrogant about his own righteousness. Joseph chooses obedience. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Love is listening for God’s voice, hearing God’s instructions. Love is choosing to obey even when obedience doesn’t make sense, even when obedience is costly, even when obedience means putting aside personal needs or wants. Love chooses obedience rather than seeking personal desires.
We next find Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. He and Mary set out on this journey to the city of David to register for the census in his family’s hometown. It is a long walk—or perhaps a long ride on a donkey. Either way, it is an arduous journey for a young woman who is nine months pregnant. Surely Mary is uncomfortable and in pain. Surely she grows very tired and needs to stop often. And I just imagine that she is pretty cranky.
And there is Joseph—new to this marriage business, never having been this close to a pregnant woman. And he is alone with her—trying to care for his greatly pregnant wife as best he can. He helps her as they walk. He encourages her to keep on going when she is tired. And when they finally arrive, he secures a place for them to stay, one that was not ideal but was safe and warm. Joseph never speaks, but don’t you hear love?
Love is caring for those closest to us. Love is meeting the physical needs of those we love—even when those care-taking tasks are unpleasant. Love is patience when others are hurting and grumpy. Love is faithful to stay close when life gets really messy. Love is providing as best it can for those we love, for those in great need. Love chooses to care for others over our own safety or what is easiest for us.
We encounter Joseph again eight days after Jesus’ birth. The new parents take their sweet baby to Jerusalem. They present Jesus as required by law and by love, and they offer the required sacrifices, dedicating this newborn son to God. They encounter two elderly saints who recognize Jesus as the one sent by God to save the world. And Joseph stands next to Mary, amazed by these declarations. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Love is showing up at God’s house. Love is following God’s guidelines for life. Love is honoring God with our tithes and offering. Love is dedicating our children to God. Love is listening to those who are wise people sent by God to us. Love is being present with an open heart and with listening ears. Love is choosing God’s way rather than our own.
Months later, an angel of the Lord comes back to Joseph again in a dream and warns the new father of the danger his family is facing. The angel tells Joseph that King Herod has made a horrific plan to kill off all the baby boys—King Herod wants Jesus dead, and the king is willing to kills hundreds of baby boys to ensure that he has no rival to his throne. Joseph responds in a way that we now expect him to. He wakes his small family in the night, packs up their possessions, and begins the journey to safe territory in Egypt, and these refugees stay in Egypt until once again an angel shows up for Joseph, telling him that it is time to go home to Nazareth. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Love is protecting, sheltering, shielding those we love from the evil of the world. Love is making hard decisions to ensure our children, our family’s safety. Love sometimes means moving on, moving away, changing locations, finding a safer place. For those of us who are parents, we know that we can’t protect our children from all the world’s hurts. We can’t forever shield them from evil, but LOVE calls us to do our very best to keep them safe, to protect them—and as our children grow older, protecting them requires that we teach them. We teach them to be careful, to be alert, to recognize the danger that is around. Love offers protection from danger and sheltering those we love from the dangers and harshness or our world in all the ways in which we can.
Finally, we once again find Joseph during the year in which Jesus comes of age. When Jesus turns twelve, Joseph and Mary take their son to the temple for the Passover Festival. We know the story. Jesus wanders off. He gets swept into a theological conversation with several teachers and loses track of time. When Jesus is finally found by his parents, they are shocked by the kind of conversation he is having. They are amazed by the depth of his understanding. But even so, Mary scolds him for worrying them. Throughout this encounter, Joseph stays quiet. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Love is respecting the working of God in the lives of others. Joseph and even Mary for that matter did not correct Jesus’ search for truth. They did not call him out for seeking to learn from the teachers in the Temple. They did not suppress his desire to be in God’s house—Mary did chide him for making them worry, but in this Temple story, we find Mary and Joseph watching and waiting in awe as they see God at work in the life of his son. Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Love is being open to God’s movement, God’s activity in the lives of those we love. Love is letting go of our own expectations about what our children, our family, our friends should be doing for God—and helping them to be in places to hear God for themselves and then encouraging and assisting them as they follow God’s leadership. Love means letting go of our hopes and dreams for others and embracing God’s hopes and dreams for them.
Love is participating in what God is doing around us—in the lives of others. Love is being an encouraging presence. Love is listening and praying and often silencing our own voices so that God’s voice might be heard.
In their gospels, Matthew and Luke record no words spoken by Joseph. But don’t you hear love?
Don’t you hear Joseph’s great love for his God?
Don’t you hear Joseph’s deep love for Mary?
Don’t you hear Joseph’s protective and nurturing love for Jesus?
Joseph speaks no words, but don’t you hear love?
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.