Two things you know of me. That I am a carpenter and that I am the one who gave refuge to Mary.
Two other things you think that you know. That I am an old man, past the age of desire, and that I fear God.
Lets start with the facts. I am a small boy and the soldiers come. Plump foreign boys who think they own our land. Galilee is a troublesome province and it must be subdued. We must be subdued. They break down the doors searching for rebels. If their spies tell them that the fathers and the brothers of the house are fighters then it is not only the doors that are broken. Furniture is smashed. Cradles, wedding chests, the trestles set for the Sabbath meal - all are broken into fragments and then torched. Flames quickly catch the rafters. The roof is down, the home destroyed.
The first time I saw this happen I ran away and hid myself amongst the thorn bushes. The second time I saw this I took my small knife, I was just seven years old, and began to whittle a new drinking cup for the thirsty toddler sat amongst the ashes. By the time I was twelve I knew how to repair a door frame and secure a home quickly against the night. In my spare time I learned to make the intricate carvings that adorn a wedding chest – the place a young girl stores the things she is saving for the day when she will be married. Now I am a man. I am Joseph. I am the carpenter. The one who restores and mends and makes good. The one who builds homes and carefully carves the ancient patterns of the spirals of life. I am the one who does what he can so that our people can continue to live in the land where our ancestors are buried.
Let us stay with the facts. I am the one who sheltered Mary - and Mary was a little girl I saw crying and thirsty and covered with white ash amidst the ruins of her home. I was seven years old and I took my knife and I made a cup so that I could bring water to her. Her brothers and fathers had fled. Full of talk of God and of the vengeance he would bring upon our enemies. I watched as the men who remained gathered to cut planks, measure new rafters and began rebuilding amongst the charred embers. I thought how fine it would be to build a safe house for this scared child and to secure it against danger. When she grew and stopped playing in the market place with the other children, when she began to veil her hair, I gave her the wedding chest I had been carving and I promised her that always I would always care for her.
I am not a man whose blood runs hot and whose eyes are blinded by crazy visions. I do not pray to God for vengeance and I do not go out into the wilderness and wait for signs and wonders. I am a carpenter and I am the one who was betrothed to Mary, who was building a house for us to live in and was keeping aside small pieces of good wood which would become the cradle of our child. I had the same dreams and desires that any of you might have and these were not to do with ancient prophecies or promises. I am not an old man whose dreams are smoke but a young man who wakes early and works hard and sleeps soundly.
This time it was not soldiers who raided us destroying what we had. No this time it was a different power that overshadowed us. Terrible and irresistible, a wind, a fire a spirit. ‘Joseph,’ said the voice, ‘take care of Mary. Love Mary. Embrace her as your wife. Give her shelter’ – and of course I do so. With all my heart I do so.
Is it because I fear God? Who does not fear a power such as this that brings down all before it. But fear is not the first thing in my heart. First I am angry that our lives and our hopes and dreams seem to count for so little and are so easily burnt to ashes. I do not understand why God reaches out to us in this terrifying way when we are so weak and seek only to live in peace and build as humans do, homes and hearths and happiness. I am angry. And I am bewildered. I do not understand why God chose a carpenter to be part of this ‘burning’ work. It is not the kind that I am used to. But I will care for Mary. And for the child too, if I am able.
Printed with permission from Professor Heather Walton, Glasgow University
- 56 years ago