Advent 4A: The Other Side of the Manger


"Joseph With Infant Christ", Bartoleme' Estaban Murillo, 1665-1666, Museum of Fine Arts, Sevilla, Spain
“Joseph With Infant Christ”, Bartoleme’ Estaban Murillo, 1665-1666, Museum of Fine Arts, Sevilla, Spain

Lectionary Gospel Passage for Reflection:  Matthew 1: 18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him 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.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:   ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Poor Joseph!  This is the only time that he really gets a starring role in the story and he doesn’t even really have a speaking part. We are all guilty of sort of skipping over Joseph, sort of putting him back in the stable, so to speak.  After all, he’s sort of just an extra character to complete the happy little family, right?  But can you imagine what he must have been going through?  This was not just affecting Mary’s life. It was affecting his life too.  The proper (and probably the easiest) thing would be to quietly divorce her and go on with his life.  To be honest, you have to admire him for just wanting to quietly dismiss the whole problem.  After all, he couldn’t marry her at this point.  The text says that he was a “righteous” man.  This meant that he was faithful to the Scriptures, to the laws of the Torah.  He didn’t have a choice.  He HAD to divorce Mary.  But he would do it quietly.  It seems that he really did feel compassion for her.  But he also had to be a little hurt, probably a little angry.  We can only imagine.

But in the night in a wild fit of sleep came the dream.  Ah, the dream!  “Listen to her, Joseph, she is telling the truth.  And she needs you.  This child will need you.  He will need a father in his life to show him how to grow up, to show him how to become a man.  He will need someone to hold him when he is afraid and scold him when he gets off course as all children do.  He really just needs someone to love him into being.  And Mary?  She is scared.  She needs you.  You can do this together.”  Joseph, God is calling you too.  Mary cannot go through this alone.  And, so Joseph awakened, took Mary in his arms, and entered the sacred story that had been handed to him from generations before him.  And their lives changed forever.

This is his announcement, the Annunciation to Joseph.  The name “Joseph” means “God will add” or “God will increase”.  God called Mary as the God-bearer; but God called Joseph to also respond, to add to the meaning of the story.  After all, it is the Joseph side of the story that once again upsets the social and religious expectation apple cart, so to speak.  It is Joseph that must break the ranks of righteousness and instead become human.  This beautiful nativity story is both wondrous and scandalous at the same time.  And so, somehow Joseph had to trust this strange news that he, too, was being drawn into the story.  Somehow Joseph had to get on board with God turning his whole life upside down.

And then God waits patiently for Joseph to respond. The world hangs suspended if only for a time, its very salvation teetering on the brink of its demise. After all, Mary’s already on board.  But she needs help.  She needs you.  God needs you.  So, how can this be? I do believe in the omnipotence of God. But I also believe that God, in God’s infinite wisdom, chose to give up part of that power. It’s called free will. God gave a piece of the Godself to each of us that we might choose to respond in faith. How can this be? Certainly not without God and not even without us. Our faith journey is a partnership with God, a dance between the human and the Divine. And so God waits…How can this be?…Only if you respond. So, both Mary and Joseph said “yes” and the Divine began to spill into the womb of the world. Salvation has begun.  The world is with child.

Maybe we continually put Joseph on the other side of the manger because it’s more comfortable for us.  After all, this beautiful story that we love so much is not just about God and Mary and a baby.  It is God coming into the world, it is God coming into our midst, it is God coming to us.  And Joseph is really just a plain old guy.  It’s easier to give a small part in the story rather than realize that God needed him too.  Because of God needed Joseph, then God needs us.  God needs us to wake up to what God is calling us to do.

It’s almost time!  There are bells ringing in the distance and hope and peace and eternity are waiting in the wings.  How can this be?  Because the God of all that is Divine also claims the ordinariness of our lives.  God wants to live with each one of us, as one of us.  And each of us is called to be the God-bearer, to bring the hope and peace and eternity that is waiting into our world.  Each of us is called to add to the numbers of generations before us.  The miracle of Christmas does not stop with the birth of a baby.  It instead happens every day that we say “yes” to eternity, “yes” to God’s Kingdom, and “yes” to bringing the Divine into the world.  It’s almost time!  The world is with child.

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?  Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand, and told him to stand in the back of the crèche, background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?  God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful in spite of the gossip in Nazareth, in spite of the danger from Herod.  This man, Joseph, listened to angels and it was he who named the Child Emmanuel.  Is this a man to be stuck for centuries in the back of the stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway guarding the mother and child or greeting shepherds and kings.  When he wasn’t in the doorway, he was probably urging Mary to get some rest, gently covering her with his cloak, assuring her that he would watch the Child.  Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms and walked him in the night, patting him lovingly until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God for this man of incredible faith into whose care God place the Christ Child.  As a gesture of gratitude, let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable where he can guard and greet and cast an occasional glance at this Child who brought us life.

Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem


Reflection:  What is your part in the Nativity story?  To what is God calling you to awaken?

Grace and Peace,


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