Even if you were not raised Catholic you are most likely aware of the Hail Mary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women…” The Christmas story centers largely around Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus, as it should. The virgin birth of our savior is a key element of our faith and belief. But little attention is given to Joseph the man charged with being the earthly father and protector of young Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t mention Joseph again after Jesus debuts in the temple as a young boy. The Western church gives him little attention while the Catholic and Orthodox churches venerated him as a Saint. Joseph holds a very unique place in the story of the Incarnate birth, one that is rarely mentioned or considered, a privilege that is hard to fathom.
The Gospels record that Joseph was commissioned by an angel to take charge of young Mary. The two of them make their journey to Bethlehem while Mary is in her last stages of pregnancy. On that night in the holding area for livestock Mary gives birth to Jesus. There is no recording of anyone being present with her except Joseph. So what special privilege does Joseph hold that no other human can boast? Having witnessed the birth of all my sons and my granddaughter and understanding the birthing process, there can only be one conclusion. As he is the only one present to assist Mary with her birth, it is Joseph who is the first to behold baby Jesus as He enters into our globe, and it is Joseph who is the first to touch and hold our incarnate savior before he presents Him to Mary. Wow! Scripture records that the angel told Mary she was highly favored, but that same favor must have surely rested upon Joseph as well as his was the first human encounter with the eternal lamb.
Each Christmas I try to imagine the story from the perspective of some of the other characters mentioned in scripture. However, I’m not sure how one could adequately capture the emotions of the realization through the Holy Spirit that you are holding in your hands your own creator and creator of the universe. Did Joseph swell up with joy, did he cringe at the thought of being God’s earthy protector? Did he have a clue to the mission and divine plan set into place by this birth? One can only speculate.
Little else is recorded about Joseph in scripture. We know that he is not present at the wedding in Canaan. Nor is he present at the crucifixion. Had he been alive it would have been his responsibility to take custody of the body of Christ and arrange the burial, but that wasn’t the case. The fifth century apocryphal biography of Joseph gives us some interesting clues as to the life of Joseph that answers questions the story poses. The biography lists the birth of Joseph as being 90 B.C. and his death about 18 A.D. These dates throw a curve into our western perception of a young couple in Bethlehem as often depicted in our nativities, but largely supports what the absence of scripture may suggest. These dates would make Joseph ninety years old when betrothed to Mary, and he would have died at the age of well over one hundred years, before Jesus enters into His ministry. The biography records Joseph as being a widow with children, which would account for the step siblings of Jesus. It is not recorded that Joseph and Mary had any children. This too is important in the theology that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Tradition has it that Joseph died near or in the arms of Jesus and Mary, and in the ministry of heaven’s angels.
Whatever conclusion your personal research may lead you to, one can’t deny the unique privilege Joseph holds in the Christmas story. To find favor in the sight of God, to be charged with the earthly paternity of God’s Son, to be the first human eyes to behold Jesus, the first rough but blessed hands to touch and hold Him-who among us can attain such favor! There is every good reason for Joseph to be venerated as a Saint for his role in this blessed tradition we call Christmas.