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Joseph's Letter Home
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
a Christmas Story
Bartolome Esteban Murillo (Spanish painter, 1617-1682), detail from The Holy Family with a Small Bird (c. 1650), Museo del Prado, Madrid. Larger image.
We're still in Bethlehem--Mary and I and little Jesus.
There were lots of things I couldn't talk to you about last summer. You wouldn't have believed me then, but maybe I can tell you now. I hope you can understand.
You know, Mom, I've always loved Mary. You and dad used to tease me about her when she was still a girl. She and her brothers used to play on our street. Our families got together for supper. But the hardest day of my life came scarcely a year ago when I was twenty and she only fifteen. You remember that day, don't you?
The trouble started after we were betrothed and signed the marriage agreement at our engagement. That same spring Mary had left abruptly to visit her old cousin Elizabeth in Judea. She was gone three whole months. After she got back, people started wondering out loud if she were pregnant.
It was cloudy the day when I finally confronted her with the gossip. "Mary," I asked at last, "are you going to have a baby?"
Her clear brown eyes met mine. She nodded.
I didn't know what to say. "Who?" I finally stammered.
Mom, Mary and I had never acted improperly--even after we were betrothed.
Mary looked down. "Joseph," she said. "There's no way I can explain. You couldn't understand. But I want you to know I've never cared for anyone but you." She got up, gently took my hands in hers, kissed each of them as if it were the last time she would ever do that again, and then turned towards home. She must have been dying inside. I know I was.
The rest of the day I stumbled through my chores. It's a wonder I didn't hurt myself in the woodshop. At first I was angry and pounded out my frustrations on the doorframe I was making. My thoughts whirled so fast I could hardly keep my mind on my work. At last I decided just to end the marriage contract with a quiet divorce. I loved her too much to make a public scene.
I couldn't talk to you. Or anyone, for that matter. I went to bed early and tried to sleep. Her words came to me over and over. "I've never cared for anyone but you.... I've never cared for anyone but you...." How I wished I could believe her!
I don't know when I finally fell asleep. Mom, I had a dream from God. An angel of the Lord came to me. His words pulsated through my mind so intensely I can remember them as if it were yesterday.
"Joseph, son of David," he thundered, "do not fear to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."
I couldn't believe my ears, Mom. This was the answer! The angel continued, "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The angel gripped my shoulders with his huge hands. For a long moment his gaze pierced deep within me. Just as he turned to go, I think I saw a smile on his shining face.
I sat bolt upright in bed. No sleep after that! I tossed about for a while, going over the words in my mind. Then I got up and dressed quietly so I wouldn't wake you.
I must have walked for miles beneath the moonless sky. Stars pricked the blackness like a thousand tiny pinpoints. A warm breeze blew on my face.
I sang to the Lord, Mom. Yes, me, singing, if you can imagine that. I couldn't contain my joy. I told Him that I would take Mary and care for her. I told Him I would watch over her--and the child--no matter what anyone said.
I got back just as the sun kissed the hilltops. I don't know if you still recall that morning, Mom. I can see it in my mind's eye as if it were yesterday. You were feeding the chickens, surprised to see me out. Remember?
"Sit down," I said to you. "I've got to tell you something." I took your arm and helped you find a seat on the big rock out back. "Mom," I said, "I'm going to bring Mary home as my wife. Can you help make a place for her things?"
You were silent a long time. "You do know what they're saying, don't you, son?" you said at last, your eyes glistening.
"Yes, Mom, I know."
Your voice started to rise. "If your father were still alive, he'd have some words, I'll tell you. Going about like that before you are married. Disgracing the family and all. You... you and Mary ought to be ashamed of yourselves!"
You'd never have believed me if I'd tried to explain, so I didn't. Unless the angel had spoken to you, you'd have laughed me to scorn.
"Mom, this is the right thing to do," I said.
And then I started talking to you as if I were the head of the house. "When she comes I don't want one word to her about it," I sputtered. "She's your daughter-in-law, you'll respect her. She'll need your help if she's to bear the neighbors' wagging tongues!"
I'm sorry, Mom. You didn't deserve that. You started to get up in a huff.
"Mom," I murmured, "I need you." You took my hand and got to your feet, but the fire was gone from your eyes.
"You can count on me, Joseph," you told me with a long hug. And you meant it. I never heard another word. No bride could hope for a better mother-in-law than you those next few months.
Mom, after I left you I went up the road to Mary's house and knocked. Her mother glared at me as she opened the door. Loudly, harshly she called into the house, "It's Joseph!" almost spitting out my name as she said it.
My little Mary came out cringing, as if she expected me give her the back of my hand, I suppose. Her eyes were red and puffy. I can just imagine what her parents had said.
We walked a few steps from the house. She looked so young and afraid. "Pack your things, Mary," I told her gently. "I'm taking you home to be my wife."
"Joseph!" She hugged me as tight as she could. Mom, I didn't realize she was so strong.
I told her what I'd been planning. "We'll go to Rabbi Ben-Ezer's house this week and have him perform the ceremony."
I know it was awfully sudden, Mom, but I figured the sooner we got married the better it would be for her, and me, and the baby.
"Mary, even if our friends don't come, at least you and I can pledge our love before God." I paused. "I think my Mom will be there. And maybe your friend Rebecca would come if her dad will let her. How about your parents?"
I could feel Mary's tiny frame shuddering as she sobbed quietly.
"Mary," I said. I could feel myself speaking more boldly. "No matter what anyone says about you, I'm proud you're going to be my wife. I'm going to take good care of you. I've promised God that."
She looked up.
I lowered my voice. "I had a dream last night, Mary. I saw an angel. I know."
The anguish which had gripped her face vanished. She was radiant as we turned away from the house and began to walk up the hill together.
Just then her mother ran out into the yard. "Wait," she called. She must have been listening from behind the door. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
"I'll get your father," she called, almost giddy with emotion. "We," she cried as she gathered up her skirts. "We," she shouted as she began to run to find her husband. "We ... are going to have a wedding!"
That's how it was, Mom. Thanks for being there for us. I'll write again soon.
|Notes: A marriage contract, specifically Writings of Betrothal, had been drawn up. Betrothal could only be broken by divorce. Ordinarily the marriage itself would take place a year or so after betrothal. See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, reprint of 1876 ed.), pp. 148-151; Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969, reprinted from 1886 ed.), Vol 1, pp. 148-151; Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962, ET 1969), p. 367; and J. A. Thompson, "Marriage," in J. D. Douglas, et. al. (eds.), New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition; Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982), p. 743-744. Matthew 1:20-21 is quoted in the New International Version.||This short story first appeared in Home Life, December 1989, pp. 32-33. Since it has been read on the BBC, Focus on the Family, and in hundreds of congregations. It is included in the book The Greatest Christmas Stories of All Time (Standard, 2006). The video "From Joseph's Quill" (2004, 5 min; remastered for High Definition 2014) was based on this story. It was recorded by Derek West, Caleb's Mission, Whitney, Oxfordshire, UK, Oct 2001 (7:19, mp3)|
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