I had the pleasure of attending the Christmas pageant put on my daughter’s school earlier this week. Nothing warms the heart like little boys in bathrobes swinging walking canes, two-legged cows and donkeys, and girls in choir robes with glittery wings attached, and I say this with no hint of irony. If God chose to enter the world in the form of an innocent babe, what, then, could be more appropriate than children themselves enacting this timeless, world-changing story?
My six-year-old daughter was Mary. Attired in the customary blue, she sat in the customary position, to the left of the doll in swaddling clothes. Above her a star of Christmas lights gleamed like the one that led the magi to the Christ Child. To the right of the babe sat Joseph, and on this joyous night to celebrate the Savior’s birth Joseph was crying — in fact, bawling his eyes out.
The stage, the lights, the people, they were all too much for the little guy. He had a bad case of stage fright. The cow ambled over to comfort him. An angel of the Lord tried. Nothing worked. He cried. The show went on.
I felt bad for him, but, really, such unscripted additions only make for more memorable Christmas programs. As we say, kids will be kids — and delightfully so.
The man he was portraying is often the odd man out of the story, the forgotten and seemingly irrelevant male. The babe and Mary take center stage. Not the biological father, Joseph is often underemphasized in sermon and picture to stress that very point: Jesus is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary.
Yet Joseph is no bit character. He is essential to the story. He discovers his betrothed is with child, but he’s not the father. A good man, Joseph has no desire to shame the unfaithful Mary, so he “resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins”‘ (Matthew 1:19-22).
First, he thinks she’s been unfaithful; then an angel of the Lord visits, informing him Mary carries within her womb the salvation of the world. Though of the lineage of David, he’s a carpenter by trade and, suddenly, he’s a carpenter responsible for the safety and well-being of the woman who will give birth to the Savior.
We all know he has to settle for less than stellar accommodations for the child’s birth. At least the family was warm and safe. Joseph had done his duty, faithfully playing his role in a divine drama that he only dimly understood.
Later, he learns that the child, the Savior of the world (he looks like any other baby, Joseph must have thought) is in mortal danger. He discovers this in another angelic visit: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). Under cover of night, he escapes with wife and child.
His child turns out not to be his child after all, but in fact the Son of God who has come into the world to save people from their sins. Angels frequent his dreams. He must flee the country from a homicidal maniac on the throne who desires the child’s death so much he will kill all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two.
This is Joseph’s lot.
That little boy in the manager scene, the one crying and consumed with fear, might have been onto something in his portrayal of Jesus’ earthly father after all.