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Watching the Nativity Play last night, I was struck, as I’ve been before about the place of St Joseph. The girl playing Mary had a good part, as did the wise men, and, to some extent, at least the youngest of the shepherds, but old Joseph, well he was there, supporting mum and baby, making sure the donkey moved, the inn-keeper found some space for them, and leading them all off to Egypt. But he was very much, as he is in the Bible, a background figure.

We’re told little about Joseph other than that he was a righteous man. As such, he observed the Law and did his duty as an orthodox Jew. We don’t know if tradition is right when it portrays him as an older man, although we can be pretty sure that modern portrayals of it as a love match are wide of the mark. ย What we are told is that when he discovered his betrothed was with child, he was minded to put her aside. This was actually very decent of him, as he could have denounced her as an adulteress and had her stoned; whoever would believe their girl if she said she was in the family way because of an angel? After all, angels are not noted for that sort of thing. But being a decent sort, Joseph wasn’t minded to make a fuss. Then the angel came to him too, and, whatever fuss there may have been about it all, he looked after his betrothed and the child. ย That along marked him out as an exceptional sort of chap.

We see and hear little of him – like so many dads, his role seems to have been to act as support for the family, to provide the living, and to give them the necessities. He took on that traditional role, and, as far as we can tell, fulfilled it. He found that stable, he took them to Egypt, he did his duty as he ought; something which our age might well care to ponder. The family unit needed them both; young Mary couldn’t have coped alone. How many lasses end up in the abortionists’ hands because their lad is nowhere to be seen?

We have to presume Joseph accepted that his son was the Son of God, but that it made no difference, and that he looked after him as though he’d been his own. Whether the ‘brothers and sisters’ were also Mary’s children, we don’t know – they may have been the product of an earlier marriage – but we know Jesus grew up as part of an extended family unit. When I was a lad I had a book with Jesus working with his dad in the carpenter’s workshop; as I used to hand around my dad’s workshop, it gave me a fellow feeling.

We don’t know when or how Joseph died, just that he wasn’t there when the Lord began his ministry, and that when he was crucified, there was only St John into whose hand he could commend his mother. That protecting hand had long gone. But Joseph had been the example to Jesus of what a father was – protecting, dutiful and loving. Like so many dads, he may have been so busy earning a living for the family that was, to some extent, never at its centre. But I think at a time of the year when we’re all thinking of Jesus and his mother, a thought should be spared for old St Joe.