This past Sunday, there were three choices for a Gospel lesson, one of them being the story of the wise men searching for Jesus, bringing him gifts of frankincese, gold, and myrrh. And then, rather than returning the way they came and telling King Herod where to find the newborn, they go home by another route. The other offerings include Joseph's dream directive to take his young family to Egypt to keep Jesus safe from Herod or the Luke Gospel lesson about Jesus as a 12-year-old disappearing into the Temple to converse and learn when he's family is on their way home. All of these stories have something to say, some "a-ha's" for me. But the biggest "A-ha!" I had Sunday morning that has been on my mind is the odd, and informative, positioning of the characters in the nativity scene on a table in my living room.
Here's how this has gone: I have decorations that are mine, and a few that belonged to my late mother, especially her depictions of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. I dutifully set this up on a table near our front door. What I didn't realize is that every time a person walks in the door or through the room, the vibration on the floor has made the characters on the table move. There is the poor three-legged sheep who keeps keeling over (that just can't be helped), a deer or a horse might start to look like they're grazing on the the church steeple. But on this particular morning, what caught my eye was that Joseph, who had been looking down lovingly at Jesus had turned his back on the baby. I had to laugh.
And then I thought about it, especially given that one of the options for the Gospel lesson included Joseph...our New Testament Joseph who dreams many dreams that offer him direction...is warned to take Jesus to Egypt, the same place where his namesake predecessor had been carried off when his dreams, and his big mouth about those dreams, got him sold into slavery by his brothers. Here's the little figurine Joseph, back turned to Jesus, as the Mary figure is kneeling over the crib. What does this say?
For me, lots!
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is a curious figure in that he's not, according to our belief, really the father of Jesus. And yet, this man raises Jesus as his own son, and shares with him the trade of being a carpenter. We don't get a whole lot of information about Joseph. We know that he was going to dismiss Mary, quietly, so as not to create a scandal when she told him she was pregnant. This makes me think he's a sensitive and thoughtful sort. The fact that he dreams dreams and trusts enough in the possibility that this is really God directing him makes me think he has a strong introverted streak and a good intuition. The positioning of him turning his back on Jesus in this particular nativity scene? This speaks to me of what may have been going on in this poor man's head. He's human, after all. Beyond being a caretaker and a good-hearted dude who obeys his obligation to watch out for children...and even this young woman to whom he's betrothed...Joseph could have turned away. Other dads in our world today who find themselves, for one reason or another, raising a child as their own who isn't their biological child do leave and become the absent father. When my spouse was teaching a college-level criminology class, a question of paternity came up in the discussion and the vast majority of the students at that time thought a guy who wasn't the father owed nothing to the upbringing of a kid that wasn't their own biological offspring. What if that was the approach that Joseph took to Jesus? What if he decided he didn't have a connection, so he didn't care? Perhaps Herod would have liked that type of Joseph!
Turning away from this young possibilty and burgeoning entry into the world of God being with us is something that does happen even today. We are reminded at Christmas time that this new light, this new heaven and this new earth, that has come into our lives will require us to foster and care for it in order for that light to beome the true essence of our visible being in the world. That may require us to accept this light and believe that this light is good and good for us and others. And invariably making that commitment will mean that somethings get burned away by the fire of this light in us, and dark corners of our soul might find themselves exposed by the light all of which can feel a little--well--uncomfortable because it means we might have to do that terrifying thing: change. Faced with that possibility, it might seem easier and feel better to simply deny this light so one can go on living life per usual without the heat generated from the light which yearns to burn brightly for the world to see.
Perhaps what this Joseph figurine in his unusual position testifies to is how easy a few rocky, or hard vibrating steps can turn a person away from the light. Perhaps then, what I should draw from this Joseph figure is the importance to tread lightly as we enter into the season of Epiphany. Take care, and don't turn back now from accepting the responsibility of caring for this new light of the new heaven and the new earth that has come into the world.