Joseph (in Bethlehem)

So Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7 NIV)


It was nights like this,
of course,
when he had to remind himself,
often, why he was doing this.

Every door shut against them.
No room. No room.
No room at the inn.
And he had to wonder,
if it was an obviously unwed
mother-to-be and
the man hauling her around
on a donkey
that they had no room for…

or if it was just that they didn’t want
responsibility for a birth on their premises,
the fuss and bother,
the hot water and midwives to be fetched,
the blood and the mess in their second best beds…
or if, maybe,
they just didn’t like carpenters from Nazareth.

And Mary, patient and frantic
by fits and starts, there on the donkey,
always withdrawn,
always somewhere he could not follow,
these days,
so wrapped up in the growing baby
in her womb that sometimes
he felt like a mere convenience—
someone to wait on her,
someone to load her on to the donkey,
someone to build the fire
and warm the food,
and fetch her water.

And it was not as if it were his child.
Always, right there in his face.

It was not as if this
joy of the first born son
would ever be his now,
and how could he feel
if not robbed, cheated,

He replayed the message
of the angel in his vision—
in his, it might be, dream—
over and over,
drawing assurance from an
increasingly narrow and empty well.

“This child is God’s. I have been told so.
God’s child by the Holy Spirit.
God’s child and I have nothing to fear.”

But it was hard. It was very hard.

It was always between them.
It was in the way Mary looked at him,
challenging him to doubt,
to fail her in this,
to let her down,
to come at her with blame…

and in her own moments of doubt,
when the irrational guilt was high in her,
it came at him in anger,
her anger, as though it was his fault
for agreeing to marry her anyway,
as though his sacrifice of manhood
in this had diminished him forever in her eyes—
as though she had wanted, after all, to be put aside.

It was between them when the growing
tenderness made him reach out
and caress her in her sleep.

It was between them when her fear
drove her into his arms in the night,
weeping, seeking a comfort
he could barely afford,
testing him all but beyond
what he could, as a man, endure.

She was so young, and so alone in this.
How could he not love her?
How could he not respond to her need?

And then there was God.

God invading his dreams.
God asking this of him!!!
God asking him to rear his child
(oh he had to believe that…he had to believe…)
to take this child as his own,
to be a father to one he had not fathered.

It was hard.

It was not like he had asked for any of this.
It was not like he had agreed to this,
had, remotely, bargained for this, w
hen he took Mary as his betrothed.

All he had wanted was a wife.
Someone to be there in the house
when he turned to it from the shop,
someone to bear him children,
(“Oh God, how could you do this to me!”)
someone to love him
and be by him even in age,
to make a life with, to share his bed,
to share his home, to share
all he was and all he might become.

It was his duty! To get children for the Lord.
He would not be a man until he had.

And now this.

This night in a town
strange to him by long absence,
this going from inn to inn
while Mary panted on the donkey
with each contraction, while
sweat beaded on her brow
and her hands turned white
where they gripped the saddle.
This hopeless, this endless,
seeking of a place for the child
(not his child) to be born.

It was hard.

And then there was the stable.
Finally, a kindness, even in condescension.
A stable. It might be worse.

Straw to fetch. A fire to build.
Water to get and heat.
Donkey dung and cow manure
to shovel out of the way.
Cloths to be gathered for the manger,
to be ready for the child,
for the baby, for the birth.

And he felt as alone as she must, a
nd as inadequate, and as afraid.

But somehow they got through it.

The peace of God descended
on them in the final moments, and,
when he first held the child,
when he wrapped him in the cloths,
when he held him up to the Lord for blessing
and, bringing him back down,
was caught and captured
by those eyes, his eyes, already
open and unnaturally aware,
he knew, right then, that it was so…

This was, no matter what else was true,
the Son of God. This was
the Emmanuel, God with us,
the God who saves.

This child was God’s,
this child was his,
this child was Mary’s, his wife’s,
this child belonged to the world
and had come to set mankind free.

It was there in the eyes,
it was there in his own heart.
It was there in the sudden, irresistible
swelling of love in him…
and he wondered, “Is it always like this…

Is this what it always means to be a father,
to be given the Son or the Daughter of God to rear?

Am I blessed above all others in this birth?”

And he knew he was…and he knew he wasn’t.

So, when the shepherds came, impossibly,
ready to worship the newborn babe,
he was, as much as any man can be,

ready for them.

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