The ox and ass in every crib scene are interpolations of Scripture. “Ox and ass their maker know,” says Isaiah, and tradition reasonably attached this prophecy to Jesus’s birth in a manger. But the traditional casting of St Joseph as a lantern-bearing, peripheral, older foster father is not scriptural. This persona owes more to Mystery Plays, which attempt to flesh out the psychology of someone thought not to be fully in on the divine plan.
Joseph was crucial to it, though. Part of what the crib should teach us is that the action of God has to be welcomed and lived in the moment, without being able to assess the possible reasons for it or predict its outcome or even be understood by the world.
Jesus is born poor and in a stable, the victim of the remote power of Caesar Augustus and Herod, to teach men the lesson that they will rarely direct the greatest dramas or events of their life. They must live by Providence and the loving care of those to whom Providence entrusts them. Joseph understands this; it allows him to engage fully in God’s plan. Scripture is clear about that. He is silent not because he is powerless, but because he wants the wisdom which comes from listening and waiting.
Being fully present isn’t the same as needing to impose or dominate. When Joseph does act, it is in response to an inner dialogue with the Lord about what events require. Joseph holding a lantern may be picturesque, but it represents faith in God’s power to order all things, especially when the night is darkest. All fathers, biological or spiritual, are called to bear such light for those who have been given into their care.
Similarly, there is no reason to assume that Joseph was significantly older than Mary, or that he did not have a young man’s drives. He does not figure in Jesus’s public ministry but average life expectancy in the 1st century meant that if Joseph was in his teens when Mary gave birth, he may well have died within 30 years.
Joseph was not living with Mary when she was found to be with child. Jewish couples often married young and did not live together until they were older, which is why Joseph thinks to “put her away privately”, since as a pregnant woman who has not known her husband she could be stoned unless she marries the child’s biological father. The angel’s message doesn’t make him forgive Mary or begin to love her again; it confirms him in his conviction that his love for her is God’s will and for this reason not to be frustrated by the circumstances.
As we, like the Shepherds and the Magi, contemplate the scene, it is to be a sign for us too, something that points to an experience of God accessible only to faith, not to experience, inductive or deductive. Could it be that we still believe that we can embrace the will of God fully on our own terms, without our world being turned upside down, without sublimating some of our desires and seeing even noble plans for our lives frustrated? Are we projecting something of this on to Joseph’s vocation?
It is more important than ever today that we see Joseph not as some cipher, a kind of spiritualised stand-in, but as fulfilling the role of flesh-and-blood father. He is the man through whom Jesus matured into his authentic incarnation; a process begun on Christmas night but only completed on Calvary, and bearing the stamp of Joseph’s love, strength and fidelity and his gift of self for others.