“Getting to the Front of the Stable”
by Ann Weems
Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?
God-chosen, this man Joseph was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.
This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of the stable?
Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings.
When he wasn’t in the doorway,
he was probably urging Mary to get some rest,
gently covering her with his cloak,
assuring her that he would watch the Child.
Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.
Gertrude Mueller Nelson teaches children and adults how to live with God through Jesus’ story—and how God lives with us—as a Christian educator and in her book To Dance with God. It is a very practical book that helps parents teach their children about God’s presence in and through the realities of daily living and the unexpected surprises, happy and sad, that are part of living. So if the events in your life feel uncertain, confusing, sad, or frightening; if there is trouble at school, or at home, or at work, Joseph’s story is a window into the way God is with us.
Joseph is our icon when things do not go as planned—when people or circumstances disappoint us. If Joseph’s marriage had gone the way he expected, there would have been no experience with the holy—no Emmanuel, no God With Us. Imagine the thoughts that must have gone through Joseph’s head when he found out that his intended was already pregnant with a child that was not his. He was a righteous man, but he found a way beyond his anger and the law, which would have been having her stoned, to a more compassionate solution, sending her away, quietly—hoping that somehow secrets and rumors might eventually fade away. Just as he had his plan in place, he had this dream in which an angel asked him to take a leap of faith and believe the unbelievable. The angel asked him to welcome the unexpected into his life because it would not only save Mary, it would save him.
Joseph’s response stands in stark contrast to Herod’s. Herod would try to destroy anyone who threatened his power and authority. Joseph decided to lay his honor and power aside in order to receive God’s presence.
HeartGod comes in unexpected ways that not only disrupt our lives, but call into question our sense of propriety and order. For most of us, such disruption can be quite unsettling. Our culture, including our faith, tells us what is proper and how things should be ordered. In fact, our ordering can become an impediment. We’ve all encountered human rules that are too rigid, for instance when we’ve tried to return an item with a receipt only to be told we can only receive store credit. You know that the store is afraid of losing any bit of revenue. Or maybe you’ve fought insurance exclusions and policies. Rigid rules and policies are often a result of fear that something will be lost; some sense of order will be lost.
But God often surprises us by demanding mercy and investment over what appears to be righteousness. Mary and Joseph’s story is suddenly very fresh in our culture. Those of us who have heard that our children are expecting before they are married have to learn a new kind of righteousness that is compassionate and merciful as we invest in the gift of a new life. There is a new normal and righteousness is no longer about keeping rules, but tending relationships. Those of us who have heard a child reveal that he or she is gay or lesbian, or discovered that for ourselves, have learned a new kind of righteousness that honors love and commitment over tradition. Our hearts often need to be broken open before we can receive the gift of God With Us. That breaking is never easy—it can be quite painful—but as God mends those broken places, we discover that we are stronger and more pliant. The Holy Spirit transforms our self-righteousness into Christ-like obedience to the unconditional love of God.
Joseph is our mode in practicing God With Us in everyday life. Joseph took action, standing between Mary and public ridicule, or worse, and very real danger. He cared for her and provided a home for the child that she bore. We never hear his song. He says nothing to us. He simply does the right thing again and again. He listened to God’s word in a dream and never turned back. He was faithful, even when he could not, would not know the end. Advent is a time of waiting and watching—noticing. How is God with us? How are we with God? If this is a time of uncertainty for you, know that God is With You. If you are in a good place this season, watch and notice who needs your hands, who you needs your care.
Pray with open hands. What am I to receive? What am I to give? May we learn to live with our minds, and hearts, and hands always open to the unexpected, knowing that God is With Us.
I’ll close with the ending to Ann Weems’ poem:
This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed the Christ Child.
As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasion glance
at this Child
who brought us life.
May all people be safe in our hands.