Joseph is one of those characters that has always intrigued me. His is an apparently strange story in the nativity, and we hear little, if anything about him afterwards. But behind the scenes he is quite an extraordinary figure.
He is engaged to Mary, probably about 14 or so. Who gets pregnant. What the?!! And then claims "God did it." But he sticks by her… Pretty much. She’s farmed out to a cousin for a while perhaps. But he does then take her to Bethlehem to register with him in the Augustine census.
I’ve been lucky enough – if you can call it that – to go to Bethlehem with The Amos Trust and spend some time with Palestinian Christians. It was a powerful 10 days, as Jonny has testified with his Backbone CD. These are people who’s families have been Christians, living and working and dying in the same soil as Christ himself, for thousands of years. They are the ‘living stones’ scattered among the old ruins of the religious sites. Both need tending to preserve our future.
One of the most amazing parts of the trip was a visit to the Church of the Nativity. As our Palestinian guide explained, Bethlehem is such a short trip from Jerusalem, with nothing of any significance further south, there would never have been an ‘inn’ there. Plenty in Jerusalem. And if Joseph was coming to register in his family’s town, he would naturally have stayed with family. But there was ‘no room’. In other words, his family chucked him out. He’d brought a pregnant girl with him out of wedlock to the biggest family reunion in years, and frankly that was totally out of order. They appeared to have sheltered in a cave under the house where the animals were kept. This wasn’t generousity on the part of some kindly innkeeper. This was savage neglect on the part of a family who dare not entertain disrepute.
This, for me, makes Joseph an extraordinary figure. Not only was he prepared to accept Mary and her unlikely story, he was prepared to take her to his family, to publicly announce his faith and acceptance of her. And then to uproot his family for years to protect them.
It’s unclear what his family later made of him, or Jesus. But if we are to believe the family tree as presented in the gospels, it’s pretty clear that plenty of his forebears had had some pretty alternative relationships too. This is God’s bloodline: messy, different, challenging… but faithful, trusting and ox-strong. It’s an inheritance Jesus must have been thankful for.