The Christmas story, as is true of any and every historical event, is firmly rooted at a particular time in a particular place. Luke, that most careful of chroniclers, identifies the circumstances surrounding the time and place of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:1-7. Emperor Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone within the vast reach of the Roman Empire be registered. The ruling reached the small territory of Palestine during the time when Quirinius was governor in Syria. And Luke tells us that the place of Jesus’ birth is Bethlehem.
We saw in a previous post that Joseph was a righteous man. Part of being righteous is obeying the law and in the second chapter of Luke we see Joseph do this in a couple of ways. Firstly, he obeyed the civil law. The census meant that every man was required to return to his ancestral home and register, and so Joseph travelled from Nazareth where he had made his home to Bethlehem from where his family originated. By willingly doing so Joseph obeyed the law of the land.
And secondly, he obeyed the religious law. Eight days after Jesus is born, Joseph circumcised him (v21). This was in accordance with the guidance laid down in Mosaic law. At this point he named his son Jesus, as the angel had told him in his dream (see Matt 1:21). A few weeks later he took Mary and Jesus to the temple where they performed the purification ritual ‘according to the Law of Moses’ (Luke 2:22).
It’s worth noting that even during the fulfilment of his civil duty in the census, Joseph didn’t forget the calling God had given him as the husband of Mary. It’s highly likely that he didn’t need to take Mary with him to register because a husband could represent his whole family. But Joseph chose to take Mary with him, possibly in order to protect her from those who were still convinced that she had committed adultery. But upon arriving in Bethlehem there was nowhere ‘proper’ for them to stay since the guestroom was already full and so they ended up in the animal quarters of a village home where the only available crib was a manger.*
‘And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth’ (v6).
Now to some extent, every father is just a witness when their child is born. All they can really do is stand by, supporting where possible, and hope and pray for a safe arrival. Safe for the baby, and safe for the mother, too. For Joseph to hear Mary in pain could not have been easy. To hear the excruciating groans of labour and the anguished cries of delivery must have caused him concern. All he could do was wait and hope that all would be ok. And while he waited maybe he ran through, yet again, the dream he’d had from God and the clear instruction he’d been given to marry Mary and look after this son who was God Himself…
And then there was that moment when the baby cried! Praise God – the wait was over! The child was swaddled and Joseph was allowed to enter the room and see his son. What must he have thought as he took God into his arms? What must have run through his mind as he gazed into the face of the One who would ‘save His people from their sins’? What mixture of emotions must have surged through him as he caught the eye of the exhausted, yet happy, Mary?
Joseph, an ordinary man, now held his extraordinary baby.
And even as things are beginning to sink there came a knock at the door and seconds later a bunch of shepherds entered. They had crazy accounts of angels appearing to them just hours beforehand and telling them to go into the town and ‘find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (v12). They claimed that the angel said that the child was, ‘a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’ (v11).
That declaration would have resonated with Joseph. It would have caused him to stop and think. It was the same message God spoke to him: ‘for He will save His people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21). But that was a dream. This is happening in front of his eyes. This is reality. And it begged the question, ‘Who REALLY is this Child?’
There he was, on that holy night, gazing at Jesus. Joseph was in the presence of Immanuel, God with us.
On that most holy of nights Joseph was there.
Present when God came to earth.
Present when the Word became flesh.
Holding the fragile, vulnerable Immanuel.
Entrusted with the care of Majesty.
Where would this lead? Only God knew.
‘But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law…’ (Galatians 4:4)
* My thoughts in this post are influenced and inspired by Kenneth E. Bailey’s comments in ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes’ (SPCK, 2008). Buy it and read it! Maybe it’s not too late to add it to your Christmas list…!