Old Man Joseph: In Praise of Co-Stars

December 11, 2011
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

The story that never gets told is the one that often contains the sweetest core. Maybe not the juiciest, but the sweetest. And don't we need more sweet in the world? I think we do. We need to put more sweetness into our minds. We put an awful lot of sweetness in our mouths this time of year. We need to put sweetness in our minds. Not sugary, sentimental, manipulative sweetness that gives you six cavities just being around it, but real sweetness.

I think it's a Southern saying. "You be sweet." Being a born and bred New Englander, I haven't understood the power of sweet until just about now in my life. There is such strength in genuine sweetness. I find myself seeking stories that put sweetness in the spotlight. It's a quality of the heart. Some people were born with a natural sweetness but most of us have to cultivate it. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." It just smoothes out the snarls, like honey soothes a sore throat.

Old Man Joseph is a story that contains some of that sweetness. I call Jesus' pop "Old Man Joseph," because it comes down to us from tradition that he was old when the Christmas narrative starts. No one knows anything about the historical Joseph for sure, he could have been fourteen when Mary came to him and said, "Um, Joseph. We have to talk." But I think the early church fathers decided he had to be a man of advanced years because they reasoned that only a mature man would take someone's bastard child into his house as his own. I understand, Mary, you're carrying God's child. Sure you are. Well, we'll welcome that child when it comes and be good parents to it. You don't have to tell me anything more about it. Sweet man.

The story that never gets told is the one where someone just hangs in there and doesn't do anything but abide with grace with what is. It's the quiet story of the man who takes faithful care of the family all his life and dies in his bed. The story of the good man who grows up, fights in a war, comes home, works hard, and never writes a great novel or wins a World Series or even does anything spectacularly bad that he'll be remembered for. He'll be remembered for being a wonderful man, mourned by all who knew him. His widow will bury him, and life will go on. There won't be much of a fuss made about him, because he was just one of those people upon whom civilization depends - that sweet and steady and supportive man who helps wherever he can, who fosters the child, who treats everyone with respect and decency, who is simply kind. Who has thoughtful opinions expressed with care and consideration.

It's the story that's never told because it's just not thrilling enough. Who wants to sit around a campfire and hear the tale of the Really Lovely Man? Or sit in the movie theatre and watch a guy clean out the garage for two hours, whistling pleasantly as he works, pausing only to prune a few bushes and make a phone call to his son in the city to invite him and his boyfriend for supper?

There are two stories that were told in movie form that some of you might know. They are "The English Patient," and "The Bridges of Madison County." Both of these stories are scorching romances, where tragically glamorous women are bored by their humdrum lives and fall madly in love with super sexy, smoldering dudes - one of them played by British dreamboat Ralph Fiennes (before he became the evil, noseless Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" series) and the other America's archetypal macho man, Clint Eastwood. These are the kind of guys that men are supposed to want to be. They fly the plane. They squint manfully into the distance and have perfect physiques even in their mature years. They get the girl. They get the girl and they have true love: deep, passionate love that makes your hair stand on end and sets the heart and the loins ablaze. Everyone is supposed to want to be in THAT story. But I left both of those movies saying, "I wish I had seen way less of the scorching romance between the tormented, obsessed lovers and much more of the supposedly boring husbands. They seemed like such nice men, such good guys. I liked them so much more than the lovers."

I think you get to a certain age and you just find the sweet character so much more interesting, because you realize that tormented lovers and drama queens and kings who need to be the stars in life's drama are a dime a dozen. You realize that the untold story of the good, loyal guy or gal - the supporting player, the one you're not supposed to care much about - is the one you want to hear. It's the one you NEED to hear. We realize, as we get along in life, how far we can get on a tank of sweetness and goodness, and how relatively little we get of it.

The Rev. Diane Miller, in her own sermon about Joseph, wrote, "In pageant after pageant, there are no lines for Joseph. In churches across the land, indeed, throughout the world, boys are being instructed to put on sandals in December, wrap a cord around a dishtowel over their head, wear an old bathrobe, and just follow along with the donkey."

Joseph isn't the guy who talks. He is the guy who is talked to. "Joseph, I'm going to have a baby." "Sorry, no room in the inn." No lines for this co-star. Just action. Doing the right thing. What is there to talk about, really? The real drama here in the Christmas narrative is between Mary (who has a lot of dialogue) and God. We never hear about Joseph of Nazareth again, but we never lose sight of Mother Mary. She pops up here and there in the gospels, and is there when her son dies. Joseph is not, which is part of why he was presumed to be an older man at Jesus' birth. Mary is revered and worshiped the world over. Joseph, although a saint in the Roman Catholic church, is just a placeholder in the tableau of the Holy Family.

Who are the placeholders in our lives, the ones with no lines? They may be the ones really worth paying attention to, although they never demand attention. We can hardly be blamed for forgetting how powerful and important the sweet person ultimately is. We're being conditioned all the time to pay attention to the big, swaggering, often belligerent person who makes the headlines, who runs for office, or who dominates the conversation. They FEEL so important. They generate such heat and light. They are obviously stars. Stars are important. They get paid a lot. They know other important people. They have influence. They feel that they deserve to be watched and respected and obeyed, and so we tend to fall under their spell. But that's just what it is: a spell. Mr. Shakespeare put it best when he wrote, "Sound and fury signifying nothing." Thank God Mary wasn't betrothed to one of those characters, some man whose ego would never have allowed him to support what he believed was another man's child, begotten on his woman while she was betrothed to him, to Joseph.

He had a dream, the Bible tells us. What it specifically says is that Joseph "thought on these things" after Mary came to him with the news of her pregnancy and that an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and said, basically, "Listen, Joseph, don't let this bother you. Mary's pregnant with God's child. It's been prophesied. They shall call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.' It's all good." And Joseph woke up, or came out of his deep meditation or prayer or trance, and he acted with grace, and compassion and extraordinary trust and generosity. Because he decided to trust the angels rather than society. In psychological terms, he honored his intuition and his innate sense of decency and kindness over his own male ego - and over the commandments of his own patriarchal society and religious tradition that would have required him to shame and reject Mary, who could have been severely punished according to the laws of their time and place for being pregnant by another man.

Those who laugh at Joseph as a gullible fool make me sad. Here you have a beautiful man, a man with an open heart. You have a quiet rebel, a man living in a patriarchal society who sides with a woman, who chooses to protect her, who chooses to be a father to a child whose true parentage he will never know. What you have is a man who sees the possibility of God, and miracle, in an event that most men of Joseph's time and place would have considered only a crisis, an insult to their ego, and a defilement of their property.

He sees the possibility of God. Instead of stepping forward and claiming his power and punishing Mary and putting an end to the whole story before it can begin, he heeds the angelic self within, and he steps back into a co-starring role, because there is the possibility of God in all of this, even if people will remember him as a sucker, a fool, a cuckold. That's okay. Because what if it is a divine gift, what if it is a miracle? What if it really is Emmanuel? Wouldn't you want to be part of that? Wouldn't you rather believe in that, and foster that, and welcome that child?

If you are Joseph, you would. The Roman Catholic church has made him the patron saint of carpenters, fathers, travelers, and home hunters, and the patron saint against doubt. There is a Yiddish word, and it connotes high praise indeed, for the kind of person Joseph was. Joseph was a mensch. It translates as "human being," but to be a mensch is to be a person of unimpeachable integrity and honor. J oseph of Nazareth, patron saint and exemplar of the open heart and spirit of sweetness. Joseph of Nazareth, patron saint of mensches.