In many ways, Mary and Joseph were an ordinary couple. They were devout Jews who followed the law. They were betrothed to be married and were prepared to walk the way of custom and normalcy. But the angel Gabriel’s announcement that the virgin Mary would conceive a child changed all of that. I know Mary, as the mother of Jesus, rightfully takes center stage in most Christmas reflections. But as a father of seven children myself, I gravitate to the powerful example of fatherhood that Joseph gives. It’s Joseph’s side of the story that speaks to who and what fathers should be for their children.
Joseph was a man of good reputation and sound social standing. Yet here he was with a fiancé who was pregnant! By law and by custom, Joseph could have had Mary stoned. Her pregnancy was a sign of deceit, perhaps even of adultery. In fact, polite society would have expected Joseph to refuse Mary as a wife and reject her baby. And Joseph was tempted to do just that. The Bible relates how he planned to end his engagement to Mary secretly and without much fuss (Mt. 1:19). At the very least, he didn’t want to get her into more trouble than she was already in. But God had other plans, and Joseph was called to take a different course. He was visited by an angel who said, “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” (Mt. 1:20). Joseph now knew he had a responsibility to Mary. As strange, perplexing and potentially scandalous as he felt it to be, Joseph accepted the responsibility of fatherhood.
That responsibility demanded great sacrifices from him. He had to give up on the respect and reputation he had earned. He had to commit to protecting, stewarding and caring for a child that wasn’t his and that wasn’t going to take his name, as would have been customary. He had to deny himself the pleasure and comfort of the normal marriage he had expected. And he had to have the courage to stand up for his wife against every custom and expectation, welcome this new child with open arms and faithfully raise the family God had given him. Joseph made all of these sacrifices without complaint or bitterness. He treated Jesus as his own biological son, teaching him how to be a carpenter and instructing him in everything he needed to know about the world. He fought to protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous campaign and strove to provide for his family in every way, no matter the cost.
In all of this, Joseph demonstrated everything that a father can be. A father can be stalwart, steadfast and reliable; a father doesn’t quit when the going gets tough, and a father accepts every hardship that comes his way for the good of his family. Real fatherhood doesn’t compromise with selfishness or egotism, because a good father, like Joseph, volunteers everything he has and is to cherish and uphold the life of his child and the well-being of their mother.