Other than Jesus, do you have a favorite Christmas character?
I do. It's Joseph, and I call him the father of Christmas. However, before I tell you why, let me begin with a story.
I don't have many childhood memories of Christmas. I was the only child of older parents, who were no-nonsense people. They were in their 30s when they married in 1942, and they waited until after World War Two to have a child. Daddy explained he wasn't going to chance dying in the war and leaving mama to raise a child alone.
We didn't make much of Christmas. Both daddy and mama worked, often daddy worked on Christmas Day, and the fruit packing company mama worked for in Eloise, Florida, usually didn't close down until midnight on Christmas Eve. We celebrated Christmas quietly. The things I remember most are roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and chocolate pie. Good memories!
Now, I'm not trying to buy sympathy, for, as an only child, mama and daddy would do without to make sure I didn't go without. For us, Christmas was not about frivolous things, like toys for a boy. Christmas was about replacing clothes and shoes. Needful things, important things, you know!
The Christmas I remember best was the Christmas of 1958. I was 12. Both mama and daddy had planned vacation days, and we celebrated Christmas at mama's brother's home in Gastonia, North Carolina. This was my "A Christmas Story" Christmas.
When the Sears Christmas Catalogue arrived in the mail, I turned to the page where the BB guns were. Sears had a new BB gun with an extra strong spring. The advertisement said the gun hit a target at a hundred feet on a flat trajectory. I spent so much time looking at the gun the catalogue opened to the BB gun page. Alas, I knew not to ask for a BB gun. It was outrageously expensive. It wasn't a needful thing; rather, it was a frivolous thing!
On Christmas Day, under the Christmas Tree at Uncle Ford and Aunt Mary's house was a long, heavy, and boxy present with my name on it. It wasn't clothes. I saw daddy smiling at me, and he had a twinkle in his eyes. Opening the package, I saw it: MY Sears BB gun with an extra strong spring.
Off of the living room of Uncle Ford and Aunt Mary's house was a deck. With no appetite for breakfast and ignoring the cold, I was on the deck with my BB gun. In the backyard was a clothesline which was anchored by two metal T-posts. The far post was at least a hundred feet away. There was no breeze. I was a good shot. On the second shot, I hit the post. From that point on, there was a constant ping, ping, ping as I hit the post again-and-again.
When daddy came out, he wanted to shoot my gun. Daddy had a marksman's badge from the Navy. He was raised on a farm in south Georgia and was accustomed to firearms. He challenged me to a shooting contest. To my surprise, I beat him, and I knew I really beat him, for he never let me win at anything. He always said, "Victory is won; not given."
Having outshot daddy, I figured he would be grumpy, for he didn't lose gracefully. To my surprise, he started laughing, and he bellowed, "Boy, you did good! You beat your ol' man!" And, for the first time in my life, he shook my hand as though I were a man. Astonished and speechless, I watched him turn and walk back into the house and tell everyone how I outshot him.
When I think of Joseph in the story of Christmas, I wonder if he were like my daddy.
I never knew daddy as a whole man. He came home from the war physically and emotionally scarred. Strong, self-reliant, brave, proud, and determined, daddy refused disability. He said, "If a man can work, he doesn't need the government!" Daddy was the most courageous man I have ever known!
As a child, daddy was an enigma to me. Though I loved him, I didn't know much about him. Daddy didn't talk much about himself. Just before he died of cancer in 1972, I had a few days with him in which he told me some of his story. Today, as an old man, I have lots of questions. Unfortunately, those who knew him well are gone now. Daddy remains an enigma.
Joseph is also enigmatic. What does the Christmas story reveal about him? Here's the list:
- he was chosen by God for the task of being Jesus' earthly father;
- he was an older man;
- he was a kind man who didn't want his young bride-to-be embarrassed;
- after his visitation by the angel, in obedience to the angel's instruction, he took Mary as his wife;
- very importantly, he gave Jesus His name;
- with Mary and Jesus, he witnessed the visit of the Wise Men;
- at the direction of the angel, he fled to Egypt with Jesus and Mary and provided them safe haven;
- at the direction of the angel, he returned to Palestine and raised his family in the obscurity and security of Nazareth;
- like his namesake in Genesis, he was a man of dreams and holy visitations;
- he probably delivered Jesus in the stable;
- with Mary, he witnessed the visit of the shepherds;
- with his wife, he heard the prophecies about Jesus by Simeon and Anna at the circumcision of Jesus; and
- he was also witness to the events surrounding Jesus' visit to Jerusalem and the Temple when Jesus was 12.
Paradoxically, this is a lot of information and not much. I would like to know more, but more is not available. Like daddy, there is no one left to tell more. So, we are left to roam the trail of Untold Stories.
My daddy taught me to fish with a cane pole. Did Joseph teach Jesus to fish?
My daddy taught me to swim in Lake Eloise. Did Joseph teach Jesus to swim in Lake Galilee (or did Jesus surprise Joseph by walking on the lake)?
When daddy prayed, I would go outside and wait until he finished. Daddy prayed out loud, he thought God was hard-of-hearing, and his fervent prayers for his son were embarrassing. When Joseph prayed, did he ever look up and see Jesus watching and listening? Did Jesus (who later said, "whatsoever you ask in my name, this I will do") have a whimsical smile? And looking up, did Joseph remember the name he gave Jesus means "Jehovah saves?"
When Jesus was born, was Joseph embarrassed he had to deliver his son in a barn with farm animals and foul smells? Daddy once apologized to me for not being able to provide mama and me with more. He said, "Son, I'm a poor man, and I can't much read. All I have for you is my name - and it ain't much."
At the hospital as daddy died, I remember holding his hands and looking at them. I wondered how such strong hands could be so tender when he touched me. His hands were scarred, calloused, and, very strong. Though daddy was functionally illiterate, his hands were the hands of a master machinist, and he could fix anything mechanical. His hands knew a lifetime of hard labor.
"The Holy Family in the Carpenter Shop" is the painting at the beginning of this article, and it is by the Dutch master Gerrit van Honthorst, a chiaroscurist, who is famous for his night scenes. (And, please, bless yourself by taking a moment to examine the painting.) On a dark canvas, he enfolds his subjects in light in order to highlight and interpret them. Jesus ("the light of the world") is holding a lamp which reveals Joseph molding a piece of lumber with an adz, while Jesus is intently watching him. I wonder, what was Jesus thinking as He studied Joseph's left hand, forearm, and face? Was Jesus thinking the things I thought when I examined my daddy's hands?
There is, however, a better question: did Joseph look at Jesus' hands? I know he did. Every father does. What did he think? Did Joseph ask, "Are these the hands which formed the worlds?"
Another question, did Joseph ever say to himself, "What on earth have I gotten myself into, and why did God choose me to raise this boy?"
The other day at the BI-LO, as we were checking out, I said to the cashier, "Merry Christmas, I hope you're doing well." She responded, "Praise the Lord, I am blessed and highly favored!" Have you heard this expression? It has become very common. It is meant to be pious, but it's so common now I think it has become another way of saying, "I'm doing well, thank you."
This expression doesn't work for Joseph. I think the appropriate response for Joseph is "I am chosen, and I am highly favored."
An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel told Joseph what was going to happen, what his role was, and what he was supposed to do. Joseph wasn't asked; he was told. He was chosen, and, having been called and made willing, he believed. And how do I know he believed? Because he obeyed. Indeed, the acid test of genuine faith is always obedience. And Joseph continued in obedience. Every time he was told to do something, he obeyed and did it. Joseph's testimony is this: whatever the Lord instructed him to do, he did it. Yes, Joseph was chosen and highly favored.
I knew daddy was a Christian, but he didn't talk about how he became a Christian. "How" was a part of the war, and in one of our talks just before he died, he told me his story. In late November of 1943, off the cost of Greenland, wounded and nearly frozen, on a broken and burning destroyer, as Peter called out to Jesus to save him from the waves, daddy called out to Jesus to save him. During a prolonged recovery of months, as best as he could, he read his Sailor's Bible and had others read it to him. Finally, in the spring of 1945, he returned home and shocked mama, saying, "We're going to the First Baptist Church of Winter Haven, and I'm going to get baptized. I'm a Christian."
As a boy, unless daddy had to work, we didn't miss church services. He led me to church, and there I found the Jesus who saved daddy from a freezing ocean and a burning ship. Blessed, I spent a childhood watching daddy walk in a long direction of obedience to the Jesus who saved him from icy waters and the flames of a floundering ship. As I look back, I have to confess, daddy was also chosen and highly favored. In this life, if all a man is able to do is show his son Jesus, he is chosen and highly favored.
The last appearance of Joseph in the Jesus story is found in Luke 2.41-52.
Joseph was an "observant" Jew. The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem (which is 90 miles) wasn't too far for him and his family to walk every year in order to celebrate the Feast of Passover at the temple in Jerusalem.
Remember the story ends with Joseph and Mary looking for a missing Jesus who is found in conversations with the Jewish leaders and scholars at the temple. Mary speaks, asking, "Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously."
Mysteriously, according to the Biblical record, Joseph doesn't say a word. Why? Well, I think the answer may be found in verses 51 and 52: "[Jesus] . . . was subject to them . . . And [He] increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." Joseph knew his boy.
After daddy's death, mama revealed a secret to me. Though daddy never said a word to me, mama told me story-after-story of their conversations in which daddy told her of how proud he was of me and of how he thanked God for "his boy."
Like daddy, Joseph was taciturn. Of course, he knew how to talk, but his nature was to keep his words to himself. At the temple, I think the reason Joseph was silent was because he knew "his boy" was a good boy, and he was so proud of Jesus. Imagine, a 12 year old boy confounding the greatest minds of Israel. Was he proud? He was so proud his fatherly pride locked his tongue in silence.
Well, it's Christmas again. The Christmas story is filled with mysteries: nuances which spark the imagination and excite our sense of wonder. I think of the hymn by Willian Cowper which reads, "God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform." Indeed, God's ways are enigmatic. Often, the more we learn the more questions we have. Indeed, in the words of Charles Wesley, "'Tis mystery all, immense and free."
The old fable of "Father Christmas" pales to insignificance when it is placed along side of the story of Joseph, the real Father of Christmas.
I like Joseph. Do you?
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson