I was searching online recently for a nice warm digital Christmas image for our parish webpage or livestream. And I stumbled upon this contemporary watercolor with Joseph in the foreground gently cradling the newborn Child in his arms while the Child’s mother lay sleeping peacefully in the background. I tried to find it again so I can credit the artist but got sucked into the vortex that sent me every which where but didn’t give me what I was looking for. According to one account it was an uninspired sketch of a sculpture by another artist called “Let’s let Mommy sleep.” I had no desire to get tangled in their quarrel, so I slowly backed up and walked away. It’s Christmas after all. And the concept was such a natural scene, a perfectly ordinary scene although I must admit I’ve never seen it before. But apparently there’s a whole mess of them out there. But back to the image. I imagine Joseph gladly welcomed the opportunity to bond with the holy child if only to give Mary a much-needed break. I imagine first-time mothers are not so easily persuaded to nap even for a spell and let their baby out of their sight. But I imagine fathers will try anyway. They might not succeed, but they try. We can give them that. And since this particular child would be widely known as his own son eventually, I imagine Joseph bravely stepped up to the plate.
It is an experience every first-time father knows well—sheer utter terror with subtle hints of excitement, tenderness, and nurturing, nestled in a coarse blend of self-confidence, self-doubt, gratitude, protectiveness, and superhero invincibility, but mostly sheer utter terror. And we can also picture the anguish Joseph must have had to face knowing the child was not actually his own flesh and blood. All this is recounted in the gospel of Luke, from his discovery that his betrothed was with child to the angel’s appearing to him in a dream to convince him not to fear to take Mary into his home.
Now I have held the occasional newborn infant, but that mix of terror, anxiety, and tenderness Joseph must have felt would be completely foreign to me, as much like him, I can also assure you none of them were mine. That would be a first-class miracle. But it is certainly unfortunate that nowhere in scripture does Joseph utter a single word. It is unthinkable that he would not have an opinion or an argument with everything that was going on, but his words are not found anywhere in scripture.
It is a tragic image of Christmas in 2020. What should have been the height of a glorious season of beauty and wonder and joy instead resembles a heaping pile of disappointment marred by sadness and loss and quarantine. And those who have managed to stay positive, unbowed, and unbroken find themselves scrambling to shield innocent ears and eyes from the raucous din of tweetstorm and dumpster fire that have ravaged life and the world as we know it these last 9 months. Perhaps the measure of our want and need is more obvious simply because we have previously known a lion’s share of comfort, contentment, abundance, and rejoicing. We compare what we see with what we know. We can picture the relief we seek, if only a simple reset back to the life we knew not too long ago before the darkness and chaos rained down all around us.
And in that glorious instant we are Joseph cradling a newborn child, our minds swimming, our hearts flooded in sheer utter terror with subtle hints of excitement, tenderness, and nurturing, nestled in a coarse blend of self-confidence, self-doubt, gratitude, protectiveness, and superhero invincibility, but mostly sheer utter terror. And like Joseph we surely have an opinion or an argument in the face of everything that’s going on. But very much unlike Joseph we have probably already managed to share what we think and how we feel with whoever will listen. Now there’s likely some benefit in getting it out of our system. But there’s also some benefit from returning to the quiet pondering of Joseph amid his sheer utter terror. It seems most appropriate when awesome, earth-shattering, mind-boggling, spine-tingling mystery grabs you by the neck, your feet dangling in the wind, stares you in the face, and reduces you to ugly tears. And after you regain your composure or change your underwear, you know you will need more time to sit and ponder the implications.
Many of us have the luxury of gathering in relatively good health with the same people with whom we have huddled closely the last few months, seemingly safe from the big bad virus that has rattled and ravaged many other families and communities, quite anxious to get back to living life the only way we know, inconvenienced but hopeful, exhausted but eager to do our part, more cautious than our pre-pandemic habits but understandably annoyed that some continue to behave badly and carelessly. We have repeatedly heard that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Some among us have actually already seen this light. I probably won’t be seeing it till midsummer next year. But nonetheless, a bright new day is just around the corner. And although it looks pitch black in both directions, we know we do not travel alone. Yes, we have each other. But more importantly, God is with us.
The humble carpenter Joseph, husband of Mary, alleged father of the child Jesus, knows firsthand the sadness and grief of a world upended, the anguish of not knowing what the future holds, and the sheer utter terror of having to fake confidence and calm. But isn’t that just the street definition of being a grown up? And this holy night/day the good news foretold by prophets of old and proclaimed by angels and shepherds is that our glorious and merciful God has clothed himself in our lowly nature, born the child of a humble maiden and laid in a manger, to walk alongside us, to share with us his divine nature, his heavenly inheritance, and his Father’s love, to nourish our hunger, bind our wounds, and wipe away our tears, to reconcile us to himself and raise us to new life. It’s not easy to see all that in a child. Joseph probably sat in the quiet and pondered that mystery a lot. He knew to use his carpenter skills to provide for his wife and child. He knew to love them and cherish them and protect them from harm. And that he did well despite his sheer utter terror.
And I imagine his anxieties calmed down over time. And every once in a while as he gently cradled this holy Child in his arms while the Child’s mother caught up on her sleep, he would whisper softly his hopes and fears confident he spoke directly into the eternal heart of God. This very Child in his arms was God’s precious healing balm for all that afflicted the dark and weary world. Pope Francis announced last 8 December a Year of St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. We can look to Joseph, invoke his help, take shelter in his care. He cradled Jesus in his arms. There is nothing to fear.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020