Among the glories of the Uffizi museum is the Dutch artist Gerard Honthorst’s Adoration of the Christ Child, a 1621 masterpiece that, like many of Florence’s treasures, came to the city courtesy of the energetically acquisitive Medici family. The arrangement of figures in the painting is familiar: Mary beaming and beatific, the adoring angels in rapture, the Holy Child at the center, with the light in the dark stable falling on the figures’ faces in such a way as to suggest it is radiating from Jesus, an application of the light-in-the-darkness “tenebrist” style with which Honthorst was so completely identified that he was known to his admirers as Gherardo delle Notti — “Gerard of the Night.” The Incarnate God as a literal light in the darkness: That is the kind of unsubtle illumination we Christians sometimes need to be hammered over the head with.
Oh, and Joseph is in the picture, too.
Not that you’d notice if you were just passing by. In Honthorst’s painting, Joseph is in the background, in the shadows, barely there, as though absenting himself from the scene. You could, at a casual glance, overlook him. Even in the Uffizi’s photo of the painting, he is almost invisible.
That often is the case with Joseph, who must be used to being overlooked. In Caravaggio’s infamous Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (infamous because it was stolen in the 1960s by Sicilian mafiosi, who apparently trade it around as a trophy), the titular saints figure prominently. That is allegorical: Saint Lawrence was born two centuries after the time of Jesus, and Saint Francis was born more than a thousand years later. Their presence is ahistorical. Joseph, whose presence is not ahistorical, is there, too . . . probably. One account of the painting reads: “There is no clear-cut indication as to which figure represents Joseph, the foster father of the Christ.” Another: “St. Francis of Assisi [is] standing behind the family in his brown Franciscan robe with hands folded. The other figure, in gold-colored deaconate garb, is St. Lawrence.” Joseph? “Mary looks on with an angel overhead and surrounded by men, one of whom we assume to be Joseph.”
Joseph is almost entirely absent even from Scripture. The oldest of the gospels, Mark, omits him entirely, as do all of the 13 New Testament books authored by Paul. He is barely present in Luke — indeed, his existence is really all that is reported about him. His dilemma regarding Mary, the only real information we get about him as a man, is communicated only in Matthew. His work is obscure, and his death goes unnoted.
The Bible is filled with accounts of God demanding that His followers do preposterous, unreasonable, and often horrifying things to satisfy Him, demands that we would rightly understand as ranging from cruel to utterly insane if they were made by a human being: Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the Ark, Jesus at Gethsemane. The wild-eyed fanatic welcomes the flood and eagerly awaits “the fire next time.” The reasonable man sips his scotch, straightens his tie, clears his throat, and asks, circumspectly: Perhaps, Lord, there would have been an easier way to make Your point? Joseph was a reasonable man. And being reasonable wasn’t enough. He was commanded to go beyond what is reasonable — to love beyond what is reasonable, to give beyond what is reasonable, to take up burdens beyond what is reasonable.
As bizarre divine demands go, what God required of Joseph was relatively minor: loss of social standing. Possibly ostracism. Whispers.
This should be familiar to us. The people of Joseph’s time were no more likely to credit the idea of a pregnant virgin than are people in our own times. Joseph’s friends, family, and neighbors would have assumed either that Mary had been unfaithful and that Joseph was raising a child not his own, or that Joseph had been brutishly unable to wait until his wedding day and dishonored himself and his future wife. We must always keep in mind that the figures in these stories were men and women quite like us, not cavemen or mythological heroes but H. sap. in robust modern form, in spite of their cultural and technological distance from us.
Joseph, we are told, was an upstanding man, though his sense of honor was, to his great credit, not so demanding as to make him cruel. When he learned that his betrothed was pregnant, he could account for himself and his own actions, and so made the natural assumption about this state of affairs and, though “unwilling to put her to shame,” nonetheless “resolved to divorce her quietly.” (“Divorce” here is not exactly the right word: Joseph and Mary were not yet married, but in their culture an engagement had legal standing as a contract and had to be legally dissolved. We don’t have a word for that in modern English, lacking the underlying concept of a binding engagement.) Mary could expect to give birth — and did — at a time suggesting that the child had been conceived well before her wedding, and her son was given a name that was not traditional to Joseph’s family: He had three ancestors called “Joseph,” according to Luke’s genealogy, and not one “Jesus” among them, though archeologists tell us the name was fairly common.
(That this was significant we may infer from the story of John the Baptist, whose relatives protested his mother’s choice of the name “John,” saying: “There is no one among your relatives called by that name.”)
Scandalous timeline, suspicious name, doubtful paternity: People were going to talk.
Joseph was certain to be seen as a man who had been humiliated. But Joseph did not see things that way, and humiliation, intelligently understood, is something that cannot be imposed from the outside by others, though they may try. A man’s honor is his own. Convinced that he was following God’s command, Joseph took up the invitation to shame, and he dutifully took on the burden of raising and providing for a child who was — in either a natural or supernatural sense — not his own. “Fear not,” Joseph was commanded, and so he had no fear: No fear of shame, no fear of what people might say, no fear of the cost, economic or social, of the course of action to which he had committed himself. Scripture does not tell us that God reached down from Heaven and omnipotently plucked the fear from Joseph’s heart — instead, it says only that Joseph was commanded to liberate himself from that fear, which meant liberating himself from his pride and even from his own righteous understanding of his honor, in the service of a higher honor that transcends a man’s anxieties about his place in the world and the estimate of his neighbors.
We speak of Christmas as a time of peace. For those participating in the original Nativity drama, far from home and in bewildering circumstances, it must have been a time of great anxiety. Joseph and Mary were forced to travel to Bethlehem for reasons of tax compliance, moved around by the relevant political powers like pawns on a chessboard, completely without authority of their own and at the mercy of the merciless. Comfort and joy? Perhaps they tasted some of that, but not much.
Beauty is difficult to fight off, and so Mary gets her moment this time of year. Even those Protestants who typically regard the Catholic veneration of Mary with some suspicion cannot resist the permanent human truth of mother and child. Mary figures prominently in all the Christmas season’s observances and much of its music. She is in good company there: The Magi get one of the best songs, and the drummer boy, good King Wenceslas, the thoroughly pagan tradition of the Christmas tree, silver bells, jingle bells — all are memorialized in some pretty good songs.
Joseph doesn’t even merit a line in “Silent Night.”
Joseph was the custodial guardian of God Himself, yet you’re a lot more likely to hear someone singing about Frosty the Snowman.
(In one of the few songs in which he figures more prominently, “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” Joseph is Mr. Bad Example, the jealous husband who “flew in anger” at his innocent wife. Which is probably why that song is rarely sung, though the dreadful version recorded by Joan Baez did the tune no favors.)
Of course Joseph is in the picture. He is, in fact, the kind of father who, as in the case of Caravaggio’s painting, can be assumed to be in the picture, something that, unhappily, cannot be said with great confidence about far too many men in our own time. If you want a model of how to be a man, imitate Joseph. The scanty information we have about him is enough to see him as a picture of virtue and a rebuke to our own deficiencies: He worked at his trade and provided for his family (the Catholic Church venerates him as Saint Joseph the Worker), followed his God and his conscience even when doing so cost him something, did not cower from whispers and whisperers, and carried his burdens without complaint and with no expectation of reward or glory. Whatever might have been whispered about him by his neighbors, no one can say Joseph was anything less than a father.
The strutting politician Pontius Pilate, the most powerful man in Judea, couldn’t stand up for his own conscience against the whispering (and then screaming) rabble for two minutes. He was a reasonable man, without the strength — or the love — of an unreasonable one. Herod Antipas enjoyed the pomp of a king, and he thought that God had entered the world in order to perform party tricks for his amusement. But he was at the center of every picture, typically the most important man in any room he entered — and he was bullied into committing a horrifying crime by his stepdaughter. He might have benefited from Joseph’s example, but it is unlikely he had ever heard the name of Joseph. We do not have his excuse.
Joseph may recede into the background, but his actual absence would be felt painfully —would, in fact, be catastrophic. The whole picture falls apart without him, teetering out of balance and tottering into chaos. The good father is there even when he is not there, present even if unseen, ready to give everything and, if necessary, receive nothing.
Joseph isn’t unwrapping any Christmas gifts in Bethlehem, singing songs, or drinking eggnog. Honthorst had it right in his painting: Joseph already is pulling away into the darkness. He has business in those shadows: There is no distance to which he will not go to protect the precious life with which he has been entrusted, and the flight to Egypt awaits him. Preparation is now, work is now, sacrifice is now — Joseph is a worker, and that is a father’s work.
If he’d taken the time to explain himself, he might have looked up from the task at hand and said: “Do you not know that I must be about my father’s business?”