Joseph and Mary are engaged. Which, according to cultural custom means they are pretty much married. They haven’t taken the final step, though, which would have meant moving into the family home together. In between, engagement and moving in, Joseph discovers that Mary’s pregnant. They don’t share a house, let alone a bedroom, so Joseph can’t be the father. As far as we readers and hearers know, Mary hasn’t done anything wrong. But imagine if your partner or someone you know was pregnant. “For the last time,” they say, “I swear—the baby’s from the Holy Spirit.” I don’t think that story would get much buy-in. Even from the most open-minded or pious among us.
It looks like Mary’s cast him in the role of the fool. So Joseph plans to divorce her quietly at least, so there isn’t a public trial or public humiliation. He’ll retain his dignity. He’ll protect his public image. He’ll maintain his pride. He’s well within his means to cut Mary and this newborn baby off. In fact it’s his duty as a righteous man to do it. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, you might say.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. What it means to be a man in this case seems cut-and-dry. It was black-and-white. Case closed. Case closed, that is, until Joseph lays down to sleep one night. Just before he files the divorce papers, Joseph has a dream. In this dream, an angel, a heavenly messenger comes to him. “Joseph, son of David,” says the angel. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
It always sounds great every Christmas—yay! Baby Jesus is born. But now Joseph is caught. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s caught between the demands of his culture on one hand. And a new demand that seems to ignore and transcend everything he thought being a man is all about. If he doesn’t divorce Mary. He’ll be humiliated. He’ll become a laughingstock. A cuckhold, a fool. Even if he does the right thing, Joseph’s his identity as a man is in deep jeopardy. He’ll be reduced from the lead role in his life and his community, to the husband to an adulterer. And father of a child who doesn’t belong to him. He’ll go from playing the lead, to a playing a more difficult, much less prestigious, supporting role.
Manhood in crisis, manhood in jeopardy. Having the lead role taken away. The situation is different in our culture, but similar at the same time. I read a Time magazine article recently that refers to the “masculinity crisis” among North American men.[i] I’m not sure I buy into all of it. But one interesting thing that resonates with me is the things that once defined us as men in are rapidly changing. Many of us have experienced job loss and high rates of unemployment over the past three decades. Factories shut down, some jobs replaced by automation, while other work is outsourced overseas. Jobs that have traditionally given us our identities as producers and meaning as providers are gradually disappearing. Think of the forestry industry her in B.C. And at the same time, while traditional work opportunities for men have decreased, opportunities for women in traditionally-closed vocations and industries have also increased. Men and women are sharing childcare and homemaking responsibilities in ways that would boggle the minds of previous generations.
This isn’t a complaint on my part. In fact, the opening up of vocations to all based on gifts, and gender equity in general are very good things. Very biblical things, in fact. As the Apostle Paul says, “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus.” And the fact that men aren’t held to a standard of unfeeling, arrogance or violence to be men is also a good thing simply because it goes against the pattern set for us by Jesus. But it’s still creating a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in many of us. Some of us have become angry, and are blaming women and others, hoping to force our way back into power and privilege. But for more of us there’s this sense of loss. A sense of lack of clear direction in life.
Like Joseph in our scripture for this morning, we men may feel caught between a rock and a hard place. We’re caught between manhood as our culture once defined it. One that had definite problems, definite limits, but provided us with a sense of who we are on one hand. And on the other, being compelled by a new situation into what can be scary and uncertain times. Where we once cast in the leading role in our lives, our families, our communities and our world. It’s like we’re being reduced to a supporting role. One we just don’t know how to play. Even if it is for the better.
To be honest, in the biblical story, things don’t get much better for Joseph. The great theologian Karl Barth, in commenting on Jesus’ birth story, says that the male gender seems to be completely pushed aside. The baby isn’t Joseph’s (it isn’t any man’s baby, in fact). The idea to go through with the marriage isn’t Joseph’s. And after the first few chapters of Jesus’ life, Joseph simply disappears altogether. In fact, Jesus’ mother Mary is still standing when Jesus hangs on the cross. She’s revered by Christians all over the world. And Joseph barely gets a footnote. He’s definitely been reduced to the role of a supporting character. In his own life. And the rest of the Bible.
But maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Let me explain. In order to say “yes” to these new angelic directions, Joseph has to give up his old identity. Everything that his culture said made him a man. And when he does it, he loses the spotlight. But after the angel gives him his marching orders, our passage tells us that this whole episode “took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” Joseph is relegated to a supporting role, but one in a much larger story. One larger than just his own life.
This new life, this new identity won’t be easy. But he’ll become a supporting character in a whole new drama. In spite of the uncertainty, in spite of the difficult road ahead, and in spite of the potential humiliation. By marrying Mary, and adopting Jesus into his own family, Joseph is embracing a whole new role. The story of God’s great love for, and healing of all creation. Without God taking away his old identity and forcing him into a new one, Joseph may never have known what it meant to live a full life in service of a power greater than himself. Joseph may be pushed to the sidelines. But he can still say “yes,” he can move into this whole new future with courage. Because he knows, he trusts that in spite of the less than ideal circumstances, God will still use him to accomplish wonderful things. And God does.
So it’s hard, it’s risky. But it’s not such a bad thing for Joseph. And maybe it’s not a bad thing for us men, either. In this new reality where we find ourselves. Where we may find ourselves with less of a clear identity, a clearly defined role as men, God is casting us in a whole new one. To say “yes” to God, so often means letting go of who we thought we were to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean we have to stop being men. But it means that rather than judging ourselves on the jobs we have, or the gender roles we play. Rather than judging ourselves on our productivity, or how our culture defined us in the past or defines us in the present. It means that to be a man, to truly be a man, according to the Good News of Jesus Christ, is to be someone who defines who they are not by world’s standards. But by God’s work in us bringing justice, mercy, and hope in Jesus Christ to the world. This is who Joseph is. And this is also our role, our eternal role. A vocation we have been given… since the beginning of time.
This is part of the good news this Christmas, and every other day of the year. We may be losing our old place at center stage. But don’t be afraid. Because even now God is turning this masculinity crisis into an opportunity. One that can free us to be the people we long to be, the people we’re created to be. Because of the coming of Christ we, like Joseph, we can now judge our lives, our manhood, by how we are able to exhibit courage, tenderness, mercy and grace. As fathers and sons and as brothers. As examples of integrity, generosity, and sacrificial love for our children, our friends and our neighbors. For those who we love, and for those who we don’t know. Especially for those who have yet to meet the love of Christ in the flesh.
So, brothers, may you have courage. May you be strengthened by this news. You are here for a reason. God has plenty in store for you. May you carry Christ to the world. And to help others do the same.