It’s one of my favorite family pictures. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch are my granddad, my dad, me, and my son. A four-generation snapshot: Lee Roy to Carson to Chad to Luke. You can spy the DNA doing its thing; you can trace the lineage trickling down from face to face. Each father cradled each son on the day he bawled his way into this world. He gazed into that tiny face and saw mirrored there his own. “Here is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” we all thought. Here, in this baby, is half of me, half of my wife. The Bible says Adam fathered “a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen 5:3), and ever afterward, we dads have been following suit. But not one father. He peered into a baby’s face on the night of his nativity, but he saw there no hint of his own eyes or the shape of his nose or the contours of his jaw. That boy would learn to crawl, then to walk, but His gait was nothing like the gait of Joseph. No old woman ever said, “That Jesus is the spitting image of His daddy.” For Mary’s husband couldn’t spy his DNA doing its thing. Half of him was not in Jesus. He is indeed called the boy’s father (Luke 2:33), but Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself knew that a paternity test would yield negative results. When Jesus met people, and they asked where He was from and who His dad was, little did they realize what loaded questions those were.
It wasn’t the seed of Joseph that was planted in Mary’s womb, but when that baby was born; when Herod sent soldiers to murder Him; when the family had to flee the country; when they made the long journey home; when they needed a roof over their heads and sandals on their feet and food on their table, Joseph was the man to get it done. When baby Jesus filled His diaper with poop, Joseph wiped the divine butt and put a clean diaper on Him. When Jesus took His first wobbly steps, Joseph laughed with Mary as those divine legs learned how to walk. He taught Him to say aleph, bet, gimel as Jesus learned His Hebrew ABCs. This carpenter showed the Lord of all how to hew down and fashion into lumber the very trees He had planted at the dawn of creation. Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but then again, he was the father of Jesus. Jesus was the true offspring of the heavenly Father, very God of very God, begotten not made, but even the Son of God needed a daddy.
That’s one of the reasons why, when I see Joseph, I see God hallowing fatherhood. The Son that He is sending into this world will need more than a mother; He needs a father. As great a blessing as Mary was to our Savior, loving and caring for Him as mothers do, Joseph was equally a blessing to Him. Call him the foster father to Jesus; the adoptive father; the stand-in father; whatever you wish: the Bible simply called Joseph “His father,” (Luke 2:33). For so he was in every way except biologically.
Joseph is God’s way of reminding us that fatherhood is not a hobby but a vocation—a calling that is both sacred and life-encompassing. God hallows fatherhood, makes it holy, something that is set apart and special to Him. For in it He both conceals and reveals His own fatherhood to us. As Joseph protected his family, led them, worked for them, cared for them, taught them, he was but a mask for the Father in heaven who used Joseph as His hands and feet and mouth to care for the Savior and His mother. So my father was to me, and so I strive to be for my own family. If even the Son of God needed a daddy, I know that my son does, my daughter does. Do I fail? Yes, all the time. Do I fail miserably at times? Yes, I most certainly do. Every father does. Since Joseph was a flawed human being, he screwed up sometimes when he was a father to Jesus. But God forgives, covers our weaknesses with the cloak of His grace, and continues to use us as His masks to care for those whom He has placed in our care.
Joseph is also God’s way of reminding us fathers that our children are, from conception onward, divine gifts to us. Whether we are their biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster or step-fathers, “children are a gift from the LORD,” (Psalm 127:3). As such, they always remain, first and foremost, God’s children. Every child has two fathers, one on earth and one in heaven. And, no matter what DNA is woven into their cells, it is the heavenly Father that defines who they are. They are not ours to do with as we please, but as God pleases. So we bring them to their Father’s house where He baptizes them into the divine family. We bring them, perhaps kicking and screaming at times, to their Father’s house, where He talks to them in His word, tells them about Himself, tell them about themselves, and draws them ever closer to Him. We teach them at home, in the car, wherever we might be, about the Father who loves them so much that He sent His own Son to be born into a human family, to live and to die and to rise again, that they might receive the gifts of life and salvation. We are all Joseph—all masks of the heavenly Father by which He cares for the children He has given to us.
I suppose that Joseph could have divorced Mary when he discovered she was a pregnant with a child that was not his own. He could have refused to believe the angel who told him in a dream that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25). He could have hightailed it to save his own skin when he learned that Herod’s men were on their way to Bethlehem, swords in hand. He could have abandoned the family in Egypt. He didn't have to be the dad he was, but he indeed was. He had a sacred calling. He was the husband of Mary, the father of Jesus, the mask of God.
This Christmas, as you see that man in the nativity scene, kneeling by the virgin, say a prayer of thanks for him. And say a prayer of thanks for all fathers, for we struggle, we fail, and we try again to live out our vocations. Some of us do better than others, some worse, but we all live by grace of Jesus, who lived and died for Joseph, for Mary, for all of us. If all children are a gift from the Lord, then the Christ Child is The Gift. In Him we are all the children of a Father who is truly faithful and has made us His own in that tiny babe of Bethlehem.