By Jeff Westover
The story is one we repeat each Christmas throughout life. "And lo, the shepherds were abiding their fields by night". We can practically recite these phrases from memory. And yet, behind the story and the legend and some say, the myth, lies the compelling story of real individuals in a most unique circumstance.
The story of Joseph, for example, is one that is particularly poignant. Here was a man of royal lineage recognized publicly for his patriarchal standing. He was betrothed to Mary which in those days meant a very public commitment of engagement had been made. This engagement, under the laws in which they lived, was nearly as revered as marriage itself. It set the woman aside for the man and regarded her as holy and sacred to him. In addition, Mary was the very love of his life his cousin and he had undoubtedly known her since childhood.
Imagine then the rush of emotions he must have felt when, after a three-month absence to visit another relative, she returned home in an obviously expectant state. His dilemma was how to deal with getting out of the engagement without causing undo hardship on Mary. It was with these thoughts he struggled when he beheld a vision from an angel.
Now, Joseph was a man of deep feeling and clearly had spiritual depth. His standing and upbringing was steeped in religious tradition. He knew well of angels and revelation and prophecy. But what must he have felt as this angel explained the nature of the circumstance and his particular part in it? How did it change the way he felt about Mary? And how did it change the way he felt about himself?
We can take from the words of the angel some of what Joseph was feeling. For he said "fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife". But given his convictions and given his suddenly impending responsibility as both a husband and a stepfather, there surely must have been a great many concerns beyond what the scripture tells us.
And yet, we fail to think of Joseph much at Christmas. He is largely forgotten in retelling the tale even though he was instrumental in bringing it to pass.
In many ways, his struggles surrounding the birth of The Child mirror our own bustling frustrations during the season we celebrate. He had his own pride and ego to deal with in regards to his bride, there was the issue of getting married quickly, he had to travel a large distance with her nearing delivery to, of all things, pay taxes. And once he gets there, he cannot provide adequate shelter, as his duty compels him to do. Then, after the baby is born, he has to flee to Egypt in order to preserve his life. Indeed, Joseph must have been a patient man to endure the trials of that first Christmas season.
As the Christ Child grew to physical maturity, Joseph was obviously there. He taught Jesus his trade and provided all the means necessary in his youth for happiness. He provided a home, and a family for indeed, Jesus had brothers. By all accounts, though the scripture is brief in these details, Joseph and Mary were law abiding and God-fearing people. Jesus was raised a Jew, requiring patriarchal mentorship and direction and this he obtained from the hand of Joseph.
Joseph was the model of the perfect stepfather. That the Christ Child was protected and reared in remarkable anonymity until Jesus reached the age of 30 is a testament of Joseph's particular skills as a parent, a devout believer and a humble man.
~ Mary, the Mother of Jesus ~
Even more remarkable is the drama surrounding the life of Mary, the chosen mother of Christ in the flesh. What could she have felt as a bride-to-be when visited by an angel? What could the words from on high mean when the angel declared that Mary was "highly favored"? And who was she to be "blessed among women"?
That Mary knew of the coming Messiah, there could be no doubt. She was raised in the royal house of David and knew well the teachings concerning Him. She knew somewhere in Israel a woman would be chosen to bring that Child into the world. But did she have any suspicions prior to the angelic visitation that she would be chosen?
And, of course, how was she to deal with Joseph? How was it to come to pass? How great must have been their trust and love for each other.
The account of Mary in the Bible is filled with all of the emotions attendant to motherhood. Indeed, of her experience there in Bethlehem, as the shepherds drew near after following their own angelic visitation, Mary had knowledge they did not. And to her level of understanding, there were relatively few who could possibly know the magnitude of her calling. The scripture merely says "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." How many other women have passed through childbirth with similar feelings of such an intensely personal nature? The combined emotions of elation, hope and fears for the future were surely compounded on the part of this young mother with the holy charge.
Mary was evidently never far from Jesus. At the age of 12, when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple and was separated from His earthly parents for a space of three days, we sense Mary's anguish at being unable to locate him. "Son, why has thou thus dealt with us?". Her motherly responsibilities clearly outweighed the fact that He was her Lord. One can only imagine the breadth of emotions she must have expended in this duality of roles.
Mary's presence was noted at the wedding in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine. For some unexplained reason, Mary played a role in attending to the needs of the guests at this event and she came to Him with the problem insisting, as mothers sometimes do, that her son be of help. He addressed her as "Woman", not meaning to be curt as such a salutation might be taken today, but instead addressing her in a way that was meant at the time to be queenly. For that was the devotion he felt for her, and that she deserved as his mother.
Unlike Joseph, the role that Mary plays in the drama of Jesus' life is documented to the end. As Mary presented Jesus for purification at the Temple at the age of 40 days, as custom then required, it was prophesied unto her that the mission of this Child would require her to endure trials like unto "a sword piercing her soul."
Indeed, as an eyewitness to the crucifixion, Mary endured her dying Son commending her to the care of John the Beloved, the disciple "whom Jesus loved". How rent her emotions must have been as he uttered to her "Behold, thy son" and to him, "Behold, thy mother." Their relationship as mother and son was obviously one of great love and respect.
The scene in that stable, of the babe in the manager, is one we rightly romanticize. But as we gather our family about us to commemorate this great event, let us reflect upon our fathers --or stepfathers -- and our mothers.
Joseph and Mary were real people. They were there. And taking nothing away from the sacrifice of the Savior, this season affords us the opportunity to recognize their sacrifices too.
What they did is what each of us experienced at the hands of our own parents and what we try to do with our own children. The compelling element that drives us to do this is love and isn't that the real message of the Christ that we celebrate in this wonderful season?