Dec. 23, 2007

Dear Joseph,

This is the season when people around the world remember the birth of your son, Jesus. Scenes of this abound—in paintings, in Christmas cards, in live re-enactments, and on and on. Although it seems to me that people have tended to focus more on the baby Jesus or on his mother Mary than on you…. So today, I’m thinking about you, you who were in truth an integral part of things. This letter is to you.


And I have to say, it’s been difficult to learn things about you. You aren’t the focus of the old stories. There’s just bits and pieces: one clue here, another clue there. Which, as I think about it, is scandalous, since you were there in Bethlehem, in the manger, when Mary cried out in pain and Jesus was born. Were you the one who wrapped him in swaddling clothes? Or perhaps you were able to find a midwife at the last second, and she did that?

I can see you with your carpenter’s hands, holding the just-born baby Jesus, who was probably all purplish-colored, with a squashed face, squalling like a banshee. I’ll bet your smile was as big as mine when my own daughter was born.

But I see all this through only my imagination. As I said, the stories give us only bits and pieces about you, and that’s all we have to go on.

One thing we can be pretty sure of, though, is that you were a great protector of your family. Matthew’s gospel tells this side of your story. The political ruler of the land in which you lived, Judea, was King Herod, and he was a paranoid kind of guy. Always on the lookout for people plotting to take away his power. So you well know what happened when the Wise Men from the East came to him asking about the child who was destined to be a rival King of the Jews. When King Herod heard all this, he was enraged. No way it’s gonna happen. He decided then and there he was going to hunt you down and murder your son, destroy your family. Anything to protect his throne.

News of this got back to you—an angel warned you. So you did what you had to do. You got up and got out of there. Moved your family all the way to Egypt, for safety’s sake. Only when you heard that King Herod was dead and the coast was clear did you return home to Nazareth.

So what was it like? I imagine it was a long, hard road…. In my own life, perhaps the only thing that comes closest was when my own Dad moved me, my Mom, and my brothers all the way from Alberta Canada to Texas back in 1979. Dad was a medical doctor, and in his opinion, the government of Canada was making bad decisions about health care which would really mess up his practice. Not as bad as King Herod, I know, but it was bad enough for Dad to want to get us out of there.

That year, 1979, we celebrated Christmas with the family in Edmonton and then got on the road. As soon as we all piled in the car, we were missing them already. Hours later, many miles later, just outside of Great Falls, Montana, we ran into a blizzard. Snow was coming down in big flakes, swirling in the wind, and it piled up so fast that the windshield wipers were useless. It got so bad that Dad had to stick his head out of the window to see anything. I’ll never forget how his beard caught snow and he ended up looking like a crazed Santa Claus. We crept forward, passed one car after another that had spun out of control on the slick highway—but Dad didn’t want to stop because, besides being an experienced driver in the northern wilds of Canada, we were also only five miles outside of Great Falls and we could just taste the promise of a hotel room. And Dad did it. We made it safe and sound. He brought us through.

He was our protector that day and throughout our long journey. What it must have taken out of him! To pull up roots and move all the way from Alberta to Texas—and then the journey itself, with all the dangers. Joseph, you know it well, moving your family as you did to Egypt and then back home again.

You’d be happy to know that, because of this and all the other ways you protected your family against harm, you’ve become legendary. For Catholic Christians today, you are viewed as nothing less than protector of the Universal Church. That’s how they see you.

All I know, Joseph, is that you held the baby Jesus in your arms moments after he was born, when he was all purplish, his face squished, squalling like a banshee—and I’ll bet that you swore then and there that you would do anything to protect that child. That’s what parents do.

Which leads me to wonder. What you would do if you returned to us in the here and now and saw how today’s versions of King Herod don’t so much want to kill Jesus as use him as a political tool to further their own plots and plans? How they use religion as an excuse to do cruel things that he himself would have hated? Did you know that? Joseph, you are the protector. Inspire us today to protect the memory of Jesus against those who would abuse it. 2000 years after his death, he is still vulnerable, still in need of safeguarding.

Of course, it’s easy to protect someone when he or she is a helpless baby in your arms. I admit that. It gets far more difficult when babies learn how to move around on their own, when they grow into children and then into youth. All along the way, they’re making more and more decisions of their own, and we can’t live their lives for them. I know you know what I’m talking about. A couple of stories come to mind which suggest as much.

There’s two of them. The first one comes from a piece of writing called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (which is ancient but not part of the official Bible). According to the story, there was a time when your son got into the habit of using his miraculous powers but to do bad things. How old was he at the time? Four? Five? He’d be playing with friends, and they’d start to annoy him, and when that happened, your son would use his God powers to strike them dead. Just like that.

The rest of the story says that the parents of Jesus’ dead playmates, and others, were obviously upset with what was happening and so they went to you, pled with you to do something. Reign Jesus in. Teach him to use his miracle powers for good and not for ill…. And you tried. You sat Jesus down and reasoned with him, but he wouldn’t listen, he was all fidgety and distracted. So you got irritated. You yanked his ear, and in response, Jesus growled at you and said in a voice big with warning: Do Not Vex Me!

That’s the first story. Here’s the second, and this one does appear in official Christian scriptures. In this story, Jesus is 12, and you and your wife Mary traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover at the Temple. You went with a big caravan with lots of people and tents, so when you were on the return journey back home, you just assumed he was there somewhere, even if you didn’t happen to see him. But soon enough, you realized your error. He wasn’t with the caravan. You left him back in Jerusalem. Panic struck both you and Mary. Your blood pressure went way up. You rushed back to the city and went looking for him. And finally, you find him: he’s in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions about ethics and religion and answering theirs. Do you remember what Mary said when you finally got to him? She said, “Jesus, we’ve been in a state of panic ever since we realized you weren’t with the caravan. Why have you treated us like this? We’ve been looking all over for you!” And then Jesus, your twelve year old son, the one whose beard was just starting to come out in faint whisps,
said, in the uppity way that many 12 year olds have perfected, “Why, mother, why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I was in my Father’s house?”

Oh, Joseph. This brings to mind something that another famous Dad, named Bill Cosby, once said. Responding to the sass of his own kids, he said, “Listen, I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!”

I just want you to know that I appreciate the stories where you are trying to teach Jesus ethics and a sense of thoughtfulness for others. It’s one thing to be a protector, but it’s another thing to teach your kids how to make good choices. It’s the difference between fishing for them and teaching them how to fish for themselves. And clearly, you succeeded. If, as a child, Jesus used his God powers recklessly and cruelly, when he was older he used them to heal and to bless. If, as a teenager, Jesus wasn’t very thoughtful towards others, as an adult his example of thoughtfulness would transform billions of lives.

Fact is, all our children have powers. Maybe not miraculous powers, but powers that can still harm or heal. Joseph, teach us to be courageous in our parenting and mentoring, especially in those moments when our kids growl at us, Do Not Vex Me! Help us to lay out fair and clear boundaries and then consistently keep them. You know what’s at stake. It’s about helping our children and youth learn how to use their freedom in a way that will be a blessing to the world. There is all the difference in the world between empowerment and abandonment. Freedom that is healthy and creative just won’t happen automatically on its own. Thanks for being such a great parent, both you and Mary.

And I have to say that my admiration for you only increases in light of how you responded to the shady circumstances of Jesus’ birth. You had not yet had intimate relations with Mary, though you were engaged to be married; and so, when you heard the news of her pregnancy, you must have felt wave after wave of shame. Talk about the violation of a social taboo. Given your culture and time, I just can’t imagine how your response could have been any different. It was the sort of thing that would have made people treat you like a joke. Yet your first impulse was to divorce Mary quietly so as to minimize her pain. You could have thrown her to the wolves, but you didn’t. You were kind.

And then something happened that changed your mind. This unborn child, who was not yours—you decided to accept it as your own. Why? What changed your mind?

Matthew’s gospel says that it was an Angel of the Lord. It appeared to you in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph, did that really happen? Tell it to me straight.

I was reading Joseph Campbell the other day—that great teacher of world mythology—and he said that the “virgin birth” story is actually Greek in origin and has nothing to do with physical birth. Instead, it’s a way of symbolizing the birth of the spiritual self, which happens not through physical intercourse but by hearing the word of God or words of wisdom and compassion and truth. Joseph Campbell then went on to say that the early Christian writers wanted to emphasize the fact that Jesus was a spiritual hero, and so, naturally, they incorporated the virgin birth theme into his story. Which, subsequently, was immediately misunderstood and confused with physical birth. People took the symbol of “virgin birth” literally, and so ever since, we’ve been scratching our heads trying to understand how any physical pregnancy could happen through the Holy Spirit.

But I’m talking about historical developments that happened long after you had died, Joseph, long after even Jesus had died. Matthew’s gospel, which talks about the virgin birth, was written 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death. That’s when the early Christian writers drew from Greek religion to try to make sense of the amazing life your son.

Again, it all happened long after you were gone. And so I want to ask you, once again: what really did happen to change your mind? What moved you to accept this unborn child who was not yours? I mean, let’s just be honest: if in truth the child was not yours, it had to have been the child of another man.

But you didn’t care. You adopted him as your own. You raised him as your own. He was in danger, and you protected him. He growled at you, Do Not Vex Me, and you did not abandon him. He was thoughtless, and you did not just let him run wild, but parented him and mentored him so that he would grow up strong and beautiful and true.

Joseph, I wish you were here and now so that we could speak face to face. Perhaps what happened is that you saw something that takes some people years and years to figure out. That in the end, our children are not truly ours. They may be tied to us in a biological sense or a legal sense, but this can never mean that we own them and can do what we want with them. Each child belongs, ultimately, to the world; and each one brings something completely new into it. In the end, whoever we are to the children and youth around us—biological parents or adopted parents; grandparents, aunts and uncles; teachers and friends and congregation—our job is to be good stewards of these gifts to the world, to help our children develop and grow so that their gift can be given.

Joseph, you fathered Jesus. Biology did not matter. Family, you knew, has more to do with love than with anything else. You took Jesus in, and because of your love and Mary’s, Jesus grew to know that above all, who he was was a son of God. God’s son, loved with a love that never ends. Teach us, Joseph, to help our children realize this love directly and unforgettably for themselves, too. That they are sons and daughters of all that is Holy.

Blessings to you this day, Joseph, in this sacred season when your child was born.

I’m yours sincerely,