Bethlehem was already an ancient town when a young couple trudged the last few metres of what had been a 193-kilometre trek from their hometown of Nazareth.
The journey had not been voluntary. The Roman army of occupation – one of several the country had seen over the centuries since King David’s glorious 40-year rule – was conducting a taxation census and, under Roman rules, that meant all men of adult age had to register in their place of birth and record their tribal affiliation.
The young man helping his wife the last few steps up the limestone ridge to the gates of a once proud but now shabby, almost forgotten, town close to 800 metres above sea level was Joseph “of the House of David.” His partner’s name was Mary. She was close to full-term pregnant. But, not with his child.
The young carpenter and Mary were “espoused” but not yet married when Matthew, one of four remarkable journalists of his day, wrote the first Joseph and Mary story. He told us that just before they set out on their momentous journey to answer the taxman’s demands Joseph got the word from Mary: They were “espoused” wrote Matthew delicately, “but before they came together she was found with child.”
Joseph, who usually plays a bit part in traditional nativity plays, should really be one of the stars when the Christmas story is told. His first reaction to his fiancé’s pregnancy was understandable. First he thought he should “denounce” her in public, then that he should just “put her away,” banish her to some remote place thus hiding his and her shame. But, as Matthew tells it, “Joseph being a just man and not willing to make her a public example” married her instead.
And I think that’s one of the greatest Christmas stories. The story of a man’s love for a woman; a story of integrity, forgiveness, understanding and great compassion. Everything Christmas is supposed to be about, but all too rarely is. The Gospels tell us that while Joseph was first wrestling with the problem he had a dream telling him to accept the pregnancy and marry Mary: “And being raised from sleep (he) did as …. Bidden … and took unto him his wife and he knew her not till she had brought forth her first born son and he called his name Jesus.”
I like to think the qualities of forgiveness and compassion later preached by the son were lessons learned from his adopted dad. If I have the sequence right, the birth and marriage took place well after Joseph got the word of Mary’s condition. It must have been a long, long journey of steps and uncertain conscience from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
In his scholarly treatise, Desire Of The Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill suggests that Joseph and Mary were in the ancient town as drop-in guests of Joseph’s family. He notes in original Greek texts the word kataluma “which means a room occupied by human beings” is used for their lodgings. He suggests: “Mary and Joseph were not relegated to a romantic stable ‘because there was no room for them in the inn,’ the old inaccurate translation. What is far more likely is that they were relegated to an unused room, originally set up for domestic cattle, because there was no room for them in the crowded family quarters of Joseph’s poor Bethlehem relations who could no doubt count to nine and may have relegated them to the worst room of the house because they disapproved of such an embarrassing pregnancy.”
It’s a version that appeals to me. I like the idea of tolerant Joseph dropping in unannounced on his remote relatives with a young woman he wasn’t married to but who was very pregnant. What a field day for clucking gossip and frowning disapproval of in-laws! What a test for newlyweds.
Whether stable or cold back room, the young couple brought to birth a son who would eventually attract millions of followers and change the world. He was a smart child but could be precocious and not above thoughtless behaviour. Luke (another of the great journalists of the day) tells us that on a family trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 he disappeared without trace only to be found three days later in learned discussions with temple elders. When chastised by a frantic father and mother for the panic he’d caused he told them he was just conducting his “Father’s business,” an answer, says reporter Luke, “they understood not.”
And here we are two thousand or more years later with many of us, buried in Christmas lights and irrational Christmas debt, still trying to understand, still trying to find some of the qualities Joseph passed on to his adopted son.
(Sources: The Gospels, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills and James Mills’ Memoirs of Pontius Pilate, a meticulously researched novel) firstname.lastname@example.org