A Christmas Story…
Joseph and the ‘angel’
For a number of years now I have tried to look at the story of Jesus’ birth in new and creative ways each year. And each year I have tried to focus on a different person or character in the unfolding drama, holding close to the story line we have in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke wherever possible, but also giving free reign to my baptized imagination in seeking to fill in the blanks in the story with musings on how I think the story may well have gone. This year I chose to focus on Joseph, the husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus. There is not much in the biblical account regarding Joseph, but by looking at other ancient sources and again, using lots of imagination, I would like to try to present a clearer and perhaps more human picture of this man, at least as I think he might have been…this then is the story of Joseph, and the ‘angel’…
As Joseph lay there awake in the corner of the stable surrounded by the damp warmth given off by the animals and underneath the heavy blanket that had been so graciously offered to them by the owners of the house, he thought back over the events of the last several months, before being required to travel back to his ancestral hometown to register for the census that had been ordered by the Emperor. Nestled in the crook of his arm and sleeping snugly beside him lay Mary, his childhood sweetheart to whom he had been engaged for almost a year now.
Fondly he thought back on that wondrous day when the two families had agreed to bless the love Joseph and Mary had for so long felt for one another. Excitedly they had exchanged gifts and promises as they formally became engaged to be married. Great was the rejoicing as the two began to plan for their future together, spending hours just immersed in the wonder and joy of love and promise as it blossomed all around them.
And then there was the day when Mary had suddenly become so quiet and pensive…softly telling Joseph that she felt she had to take leave and go to her cousin Elizabeth’s home to assist her as she had just received word that Elizabeth was six months pregnant after trying in vain for so many years to bear a child. There was concern that her favorite cousin, who was well past the usual age for becoming pregnant, might need some additional help and care, and it seemed that Mary had determined that it was her duty to go and lend that assistance.
And yet even at that moment, Joseph had sensed that there was something else on Mary’s mind, as she seemed distracted and in such a hurry to be on her way. He felt pretty sure that had he actually known what it was that Mary was then dealing with, he would not have let her go off on her own. But, wanting to respect her sense of familial duty and love for Elizabeth, Joseph had kissed her warmly and bid her goodbye as she mounted the small donkey and headed slowly off into the distance.
And then it had been three months…three long months before Mary made her way back to the village. She arrived late one evening, and as she stepped across the threshold of the house there was an audible gasp from all of Joseph’s family as they beheld an obviously very pregnant Mary. Mary began speaking softly, looking directly at Joseph saying, ‘Joseph, I can explain’…but Joseph had already brushed by her as he ran out of the house into the gathering darkness, unable to see for the tears that so clouded his vision as he choked back the sobs rising from within the deepest reaches of his soul. And as he ran, he heard his family begin to shout at Mary, telling her to leave and to go back to her own home, for she was not welcome there anymore. Looking back briefly, he saw Mary stumble out of the house and hurry off towards the home of her parents on the other side of the town.
Joseph ran and ran until he could run no more. And when he stopped it was in the complete darkness of the desert wilderness surrounding the little town. Falling to his knees he cried out to God, pleading to understand how his beloved could have betrayed him so deeply, mouthing over and over the word, ‘why, why’…until exhaustion and sleep overtook him as he lay there in the soft and yielding sand.
And it was not until the first rays of the morning sunrise crowded in on his slumber that Joseph awoke and rose up, heading back towards home, resolved to find a way to make it right again with his beloved, determined to find a way to change seemingly impossible circumstances in order to put the pieces of his heart, and their love, back together.
For Joseph truly was a loving and good young man, and as one devoted to a God of deepest forgiveness, he resolved to find his beloved and somehow rekindle his love with her. That, he was soon to find out, was the easy part. His family, and indeed many in the community did not feel the same need to forgive Mary, and Joseph soon found himself alone in his pursuit of a future life with her. Friends and family both felt Joseph was sorely betrayed and foolish to even consider forgiving the young girl, but Joseph persisted.
And it was not long after he had been able to renew his love with Mary that she shared with him a most amazing and frankly unbelievable story regarding the source and circumstances of her unexpected pregnancy. Mary told Joseph of an Angelic visitation she had received in which she was supposedly told that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, that she would name him Jesus, and that this child would grow up to be the promised Savior of all Israel.
Joseph so wanted to believe her story and tried hard to let go of his hurt and feelings of betrayal but there remained times now and then in the darkness of doubt and fear that he realized that Mary’s account was almost impossible to accept, even though he still loved Mary so deeply and so completely.
And as the weeks turned into months and as Mary became even more obviously pregnant to all who saw her, the pressure on Joseph from within the community to file formal papers of separation in order to break off the engagement grew into an almost constant murmur all about him. So much so that Joseph himself began to wonder if it would ever be possible to have a normal life within the community as the father of a child so obviously not his own.
And, as Joseph continued to reflect there in the stable, Mary stirred by his side and he reached over and pulled the heavy blanket closer around her so as to be sure to keep her warm. He knew her time was near and he was determined to keep her comfortable, even in spite of the unfortunate circumstances which brought them to Bethlehem and found them there in that stable.
And as he continued to ponder, he remembered, somewhat with shame, the day he had finally decided to respect his family’s wishes and to file the papers to separate from Mary. It seemed that a normal, healthy, and peaceful life would just never be possible for either one of them given the pressures that were being brought to bear upon them both. And so, as Joseph laid down that night to sleep, he told himself that first thing the next morning he would go over to the Temple and file for legal separation.
And then a most amazing thing had happened as Joseph drifted off to sleep. Even now some months later he still didn’t know if he was fully awake or if the whole thing happened in a strange dream, but suddenly he was aware of a bright and blinding light all around him revealing the form of an Angel, and of a soft voice calling out, ‘Joseph, Joseph’. Joseph answered, ‘Here I am, what is it that you want with me’? Joseph was unsure if he should be terrified or amazed as nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
The Angel continued, ‘I know you have made a decision this night, but I have come to you to tell you that you should not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the story she has told you is true. Indeed, she is with child by the power of Almighty God, and this child you shall raise will be the Messiah who was foretold of by the Prophets. You are to name him Jesus and he will be the greatest blessing to you both, and indeed to all of Israel.’ Totally taken aback at the Angel’s words and so wanting to believe the account, Joseph hesitated, and then stammered, ‘How do I know this is true, how is it even possible that I should be asked to raise the Son of God?’ ‘You shall know’, the Angel responded, ‘for another ‘Angel’ God will send, shall tell you.’
And even unto this night, there in a Bethlehem stable, Joseph still waited for that confirming word. He believed somewhere deep within, but still harbored doubts on occasion, wondering why all this had come to pass in the first place.
And as he lay there reflecting in the candlelight of that dark and musty stable suddenly Mary gave a soft cry. Turning to her Joseph saw fear and wonder in her eyes as she told him softy, ‘I think it is time!’ Immediately Joseph was wide awake as he set about helping Mary get more comfortable, calling on some of the other women in the house to please come and assist him as his beloved struggled in her labor.
And in blessedly short order Mary gave birth to a little boy who seemed surprisingly peaceful and serene despite the awkward circumstances of the damp stable and the soft calls and sounds of the animals joining in and milling around at the presence of this newcomer. The little boy was wrapped snugly in swaddling cloths and laid down in the feed trough after Mary had nursed him.
Ever so slowly the upper level of the house settled down once again as the family went back to sleep and the candles were trimmed low, leaving Mary and Joseph all alone with their little December miracle. And as Joseph looked on in wonder, he couldn’t help but notice that his son Jesus just seemed to glow, almost lending a light of his own to the dark little stable. Mary herself was surely glowing as she looked on the face of her little baby, for she had never doubted for a minute the message she had first received from the Angel Gabriel.
And as they held each other and looked at their little child, suddenly there was a knock on the outer door of the stable. Looking at one another, Joseph and Mary wondered who in the world could possibly be coming to visit at this hour in the very middle of the night. Rising to open the door Joseph was surprised to see a young shepherd boy standing there, seemingly all alone. ‘What can I do for you’? Joseph asked.
‘My name is Malachi’, the young shepherd boy responded. And as soon as he heard the name Joseph gave a start, for he knew the Hebrew meaning of the little shepherd boy’s name. He knew that ‘Malachi’ meant ‘God’s Messenger, or Angel’, and somehow deep within his heart he also knew that this visit by the little shepherd boy, at this time, and on this night was indeed a gift meant especially for him. And legend has it that the little baby Jesus even turned his head to look at the sound of the young shepherd’s voice.
Mary saw all this and knew that this little messenger had been sent for a special reason. Calling to him softly she beckoned him to enter. ‘Come in’, she said asking, ‘who sent you to us, how did you find us’? Starting to reply, Malachi was interrupted by another voice from behind the little shepherd boy saying, ‘This is my son, my own little angel, who was called on this night by the Archangel Gabriel to come and find you. We were all told to come and see you, for he claimed that you have given birth this night to a Savior who is Christ the Lord. We are so grateful and overjoyed to have found you and so humbled by the grace of God in allowing us to be a part of this, your joyous miracle.’
Joseph turned to Malachi and asked him, ‘Is what your father is saying true Malachi’? ‘Yes, my lord, it is just as he has said’, the boy replied. ‘The Angel Gabriel told me that on this night a Savior had been born right here in Bethlehem.’
Looking at him lovingly and tenderly Mary spoke softly once more saying, ‘Oh thank you Malachi. I knew you were special the moment you mentioned your name and my little baby turned and looked over at you. And it seems as though you have the same strange light that glows all about you as does my little Jesus. Surely it is true that you have been sent to us this special night by our Lord of love.’
And with that the shepherds excitedly began to tell of all the Archangel had shared with them, praising God and rejoicing in their great honor at being so privileged as to share in this most holy moment. Mary and Joseph were amazed as they heard the shepherds share what had been for so long the hidden secret of their life together. And then, after sharing their story the shepherds took their leave and went back to the hills to tend their flocks.
After they left, Joseph looked over at Mary, still glowing and radiant, looked over at this young woman who had been so faithful and so serene throughout the whole of their long story together, looked at this one whom the Lord had so deeply and profoundly blessed, this one whom he had could not have loved more at that moment. Maybe one day he would find the courage to share with her that he had challenged the very messenger God had sent to him and that God had somehow seen fit to bless him this night by sending the little shepherd boy named Malachi.
For now, he was too humbled and too ashamed to admit it to her…but somewhere he knew in his heart of hearts that when that time came, she would understand…and once again she would forgive him…for she always did…
So, my friends…keep your eyes open…for you never know when your own little Malachi may come knocking at the doorway of your heart…
…but I can assure you, he most surely will…
God Bless you deeply and truly…and have a wonder-filled and Merry Christmas!