He is a silent actor in the drama. Mary may sing her songs; he holds his peace. But (heaven knows) he is a man who listens and he obeys each time an angel speaks. Obeys without a murmur, though his life— so calm, so ordered, as he plies his awl— is overturned and swept into a story in which he doesn’t get a speaking role. So silently he treads beside the donkey and silently he helps a girl give birth and silently he brings them safe to Egypt and safely home and then for what it’s worth (heaven surely knows) goes back to shaving wood and is a father to the Son of God.
A friend messaged me this week to ask if I’d written a poem about Joseph and shared some pointers on what he would say if he were ever to give a Christmas homily on him, which I used as a springboard for this sonnet. Like Jonathan, Joseph is another biblical hero who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. We heap praise upon Mary for her faithfulness, and rightly so, but the nativity story would have turned out very differently if Jospeh hadn’t been on the scene. Who would have shielded Mary from the full measure of public disgrace? Who would have brought her to Bethlehem? Who would have helped her and her baby flee to safety? And then, when the drama surrounding the nativity had subsided and normal life resumed, for the rest of his life Joseph was a surrogate father to the Christ child—protecting, providing, teaching, as any good father does. Yet the spotlight never shines on him again. Apart from a brief (and, once again, silent) appearance when Jesus is twelve, Jospeh disappears into obscurity after the nativity account and, to borrow from Middlemarch, “lived faithfully a hidden life”, the full worth of which was only seen by and known to God.