There are so many strands to the Christmas story. Angelic encounters, a baby dancing in his mother’s womb, singing, shepherds, gifts, a star, a hasty retreat to a neighbouring country, a dirty stable, a teenage mother.
Recently, another strand has caught my attention. It is the role played by Joseph, the man betrothed to Mary and the soon-to-be adopted father of Jesus. Faithful, hard-working and obedient.
We know the nativity script impacted on Mary. Her life took on a radical change of direction and responsibility when the angel Gabriel made an unexpected appearance.
But it was not just for Mary either. It was for Joseph, too.
As a result of this interruption, Joseph has a difficult decision to make. He has suddenly found out that the girl he is meant to spend the rest of his life with is due to give birth. This was not part of their script. Whilst Joseph was legally bound to Mary, they had not yet consummated their marriage.
This presented a problem for Joseph, at least from the way he saw things. Did he suspect that Mary had been unfaithful, or did he have an idea that God was somehow miraculously involved and felt unworthy to be part of the nativity story?
Whatever it was, Joseph did not want to expose his loved one to ridicule, so he planned to divorce her quietly. As far as he was concerned, his role in the nativity would go no further and so planned a swift retreat.
God, on the other hand, had other ideas. An angel appears in his dream and says: ‘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. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’.
Far from making a swift retreat, Joseph suddenly discovered he was to play a key role in the ensuing narrative. His story had not ended. For him, it had just begun.
I wonder what thoughts swirled around Joseph’s mind as he deliberated over whether to divorce Mary. The life he had been looking forward to with her would not materialise. Would he find love again? Did he feel as though God had disappointed him? After all, he was a faithful and upright man. Surely he deserved better than this?
Whatever it was Joseph was thinking, the angel’s words suggest Joseph misunderstood what was going on. He felt he had no choice but to retreat from the story and begin again elsewhere, divorced from the developing narrative of Christ’s arrival to our world. And yet, the angel’s response awakens Joseph’s eyes to the reality of what is really going on. God never intended for Joseph to be ushered into the background; God instead warmly invites Joseph into the heart of the nativity story.
This short episode offers a beautiful, awesome and heartwarming reminder that we, too, are invited to reside in the heart of this very same story.
For whatever reason, it can feel as if we should let the nativity story pass us by, or at least take a peripheral and fleeting role in it. Perhaps we prefer to look on from a distance, visit here and there, or stand by and let other people take their place. The misguided thoughts we entertain as to the place we have in the story can linger and dictate a retreat from making our home in the warmth and grace of the stable.
Like Joseph, we do not always see that the nativity story – the beautiful and wondrous nativity story – is meant to include me and you as well. The whole story for all of us.
It is Jesus coming to the earth with an everlasting and unrivalled love to be God with us. The God who created us each uniquely and intricately. The God who comes to set us free from all that binds and holds us. The God who forgives and forgives and forgives. The God who desires to walk with us in all that we do and think and say. The God who can reach into the depths of our brokenness and bring beauty from ashes. The God who weeps when we weep, and dances when we dance. The God who holds us when we struggle to make it through the day. The God who stands with open arms to welcome us into His family. The one true God.
This is what makes the nativity story such a beautiful and wondrous reality.
To each of us this Christmas, God offers the sweetest of invitations: ‘Do not be afraid, dear child. The nativity story has begun and, like Joseph, there is a place here for you, now and forever’.