What we can learn from the man in the background of Christmas
Fathers have been getting a bad rap in our society.
Some of it is well deserved. The ranks of fatherhood contain way too many deadbeat dads and wife-beaters, self-absorbed workaholics and perpetual adolescents. Or men who are simply absent from their children’s lives. Nowadays we are even apt to dismiss the earnest responsible types as nostalgic Ward Cleaver wannabes.
One result is that a lot of men are living down to expectations. They’ve been getting the message that they’re inadequate and accepting their diminished role with a careless shrug.
But fathers are tremendously important to the well-being of any culture, as the havoc wreaked by family breakdown is so painfully making clear in our own. This needs to turn around. Simply being present is a good starting place for good fathering. Numerous studies are marshalling irrefutable data proclaiming that life without father is a lesser life indeed (see sidebar). Children benefit from positive relationships with their fathers, who contribute to their children’s healthy development in ways that are unique from mothers. Things go better with both.
It should come as no surprise that the Bible holds fathers in high esteem, judging them worthy of honour and investing them with large responsibilities. It contains real life stories about dads good and bad. Among the good examples we find Joseph, the man who raised Jesus as he would his own child. He was the dad who was there.
Tellingly, Scripture also uses the name of Father to describe the relationship of God to humanity. This is no trite point. Disregarding the demands of fatherhood disrespects the Creator’s best designs for us.
Lead, guide, and direct
I grew up under the tutelage of a good dad, a man who wanted to be available to his children when they were young. He was easy for me to approach (unless, of course, there was something I wanted to hide from him). He was responsible and caring. He was not an abuser or slacker or spendthrift or any of the other bad things maligning the reputation of fathers in Canada today.
I never knew my dad to be domineering or dictatorial. He tended to be gentle in his manner, yet firm in his convictions – the sort of man it’s not hard to honour. He took care of the basics. He loved his family and provided for us. He pursued his vocation with steadfast dedication. God was – and still is – high on Dad’s priority list. He valued time in Scripture and prayed with consistent regularity.
Like many praying men, my father developed a stock of well-worn phrases that would flow readily and habitually off his tongue like drops from a melting icicle. There were times when his expressions struck my youthful ears as peculiar. Why, for example, would Dad ask the Lord to “lead, guide, and direct” on any given day? This seemed redundant to an impatient and impertinent young man, a clumsy way to unnecessarily lengthen a prayer.
But like many sons, I discovered that a father’s store of wisdom grows larger as his children pass through adolescence and venture into adulthood. A couple of decades further on I began to recognize in my father some of the very qualities he described in his customary prayer. Many a good habit is absorbed through familiarity, and Dad’s way was to lead by example, to go about his business and invite his children to watch and learn. In some practices, he had to wait a long, long time before the lesson began to take hold.
There were also occasions when Dad’s guidance was more companionable, when he’d come alongside and guide with nuggets of knowledge, subtle suggestions, and encouraging words. And of course there were those instances when it was necessary for him to be directive. Then he could be precise, speaking and admonishing with unmistakable clarity. There was no ambiguity and compliance was mandatory. I usually took heed. Disappointing dad wrought no joy.
An ordinary Joe
My dad reminds me of the biblical character Joseph, a background sort of guy with a dependable streak. One can learn a lot from the good qualities of men who lead, guide, and direct like my dad and Joseph.
How is it that we know so little about Joseph, the surrogate father of the Son of God? While the spotlight shines especially brightly on Mary and her precious baby during the Christmas season, it will help us to look a little harder at the scene and consider the ordinary Joe standing unobtrusively in the background. The story could not have happened without him.
Joseph’s involvement with the Son of God begins well before the scene around the manger. From what we know, Joseph was a tradesman (a builder) in the Galilee region of Israel, trying to craft an honest livelihood and maintain his religious observances in a country ruled with ruthless efficiency by a distant, pagan empire. He lived at a time when living unobtrusively was a lot safer than getting noticed.
And that seems to have been Joseph’s natural style. He wasn’t much interested in changing the world. He just wanted to live his life as the quiet in the land, find a wife, settle down, and raise a family according to the faith of his fathers. It’s a natural desire.
Things started out well enough. Joseph found a girl he liked and asked her to marry him. She said yes. But then something absolutely unexpected occurred. Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, and he was about the only person in the world who knew the child wasn’t his own. Joseph was no doubt devastated, embarrassed, and probably very angry. In his mind, the marriage was over before it really began.
But it’s exactly in this trouble spot where Joseph’s essential good character begins to shine through. When he heard the shocking news of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s honour required him to call off the wedding plans. But he was a kind man. In order to spare Mary the scorn of her fellow villagers and the long-term burden of sexual disgrace, he was willing to keep everything quiet. Vengeance was the furthest thing from his mind. He considered Mary’s well-being even though he had every reason to believe she’d betrayed him. No wonder the Bible calls him an “upright” man.
Trustworthy Joseph was then in for another big surprise. Here we have an ordinary man with a big problem who – reluctantly and with mixed emotions – has just determined a course of action. And then things get even weirder. Joseph has a dream that upends his priorities and reverses his plans. His dream involves none other than “the angel of the Lord,” who appears to him and explains that Mary hasn’t been fooling around like all the evidence suggests. Rather, she is carrying in her womb the very Son of God “and you,” – Joseph – “must name him Jesus, because he is the one to save his people from their sins.”
The angel offers a few more explanations before disappearing. And the only thing the Bible tells us is that “when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do.”
Open and obedient
This is strange, but a couple of things do stand out. As I read it, Joseph was a devout man who was already open to the leading of God. Admittedly, a visit from an angel could easily have captured his attention, like a two-by-four to the side of the skull. But Joseph doesn’t seem unduly surprised by a vision from the Almighty. He takes it in stride, and adjusts his life accordingly.
That’s the second thing: Joseph is obedient. When he gets an understanding of what his responsibility is, he takes it seriously and sets his course. So, we can assume, he willingly endured a measure of public ridicule and local scandal because he knew something unusual was godly and true. He was willing to stay a difficult course in order to protect someone else. That’s a great quality in a man, a characteristic likely to get a workout in fatherhood.
The best known Bible story about Joseph is the journey to Bethlehem he takes with Mary. His fiancée is “great with child” and Joseph is hard-pressed to find a place for them to stay. He finally negotiates with an innkeeper for a place in the stable where Jesus Christ is born. The story then soars once again beyond Joseph.
Angels appear to shepherds, who make a great to-do about the newborn babe. But nary a word from Joseph. Wise men from the East arrive to pay homage and bestow wonderful gifts. Nary a word from Joseph. But there is never any doubt that he’s the dad on duty. And when danger arises, he’s alert and takes preventive action.
In his case, jealous King Herod wants to kill any possible competitors and orders the death of infant males. Once again, God-honouring Joseph gets a visit from an angel and flees with his family to safety in Egypt. Joseph, it appears, is one of those people who is able to lead, guide, and direct with very little fuss and bother. A solid guy.
And this is why Joseph, who has no speaking lines in the Bible (his name appears scarcely 10 times), has been revered and emulated through the ages. Today he is the patron saint of 15 countries around the world, including Canada.
Joseph is the very model of positive masculinity. He pays attention to God, he’s kind to others, he supports and protects his family, he pursues his profession, and, in due course, he releases his offspring to pursue their own calling. He doesn’t draw undue attention to himself, but takes decisive action whenever it’s called for. Joseph is a great example for fathers in any era to imitate.