Hi. My name is Joseph.
You may have heard of me. My name comes up a lot this time of year, because over 2000 years ago, my wife, Mary, gave birth to a son, named Jesus. The celebration of his birth is called Christmas, and the story of how Jesus was born has been sometimes called “the first Christmas”. It’s a story that has been told and retold many times, and is a wonderful memory for me… but if I may, I’d like to tell you a different story this year.
It began about two months before Jesus’ second birthday. I was fixing the roof of our home in Bethlehem one night when we received a visit from a group of Persian scholars. They called themselves the Magi, and had come to Jerusalem a few days before looking for a baby who, they said, was to become “King of the Jews”.
Now, you have to realize that Jesus’ birth was very special, and I don’t mean that in a proud father sort of way. God himself caused Mary to have this child, and when he was born, his appearance was heralded by angels. Within weeks of his birth, two different prophets came to us, proclaiming that he would be a saviour of Israel.
Yet… he was still just a baby. He cried when he was hungry. He didn’t walk until he was over a year old. His diapers… let us not speak of his diapers. Some days, it was easy to forget just how important this baby seemed to be.
So, when the Magi showed up, it was like a breath of fresh air. They spoke of following the stars from the East to find this boy, surprising all of Jerusalem when they entered the city, proclaiming that a new king had been born. Herod, the current king, was especially surprised at this, but expressed interest at seeing the new king for himself. The Jews in Jerusalem informed the Magi that, if indeed a prophesied king had been born, it would be a few miles south in Bethlehem. With the help of a special star, they found us.
The Magi had come with gifts, and what gifts they were. We were given three intricately decorated boxes. The first and heaviest box was filled with gold, enough for our family to live on for many years, and the second box contained incense, a fragrance that reminded me very much of the temple in Jerusalem, but the third box contained a substance I was unfamiliar with. “It is called myrrh,” said the tallest of the Magi. “It is used for embalming. I believe this boy’s death will be very significant.”
The visit of the Magi was brief. The next night, after accepting our relatively humble gifts – some of Mary’s homemade bread and our best wine – they departed. Jesus, who had spent most of the day pulling on the long robes that our guests wore, was fast asleep, but Mary and I talked for hours after they left, trying to make sense of it all.
We had barely fallen asleep that evening when an angel woke us up. “Get up”, he said, “take Jesus and escape to Egypt. Herod is going to come soon to kill him.”
We packed as fast as we could. Clothes, family treasures, and of course Jesus’ new gifts were placed in the cart. Mary woke up Jesus, and I woke up the donkey; neither of them were particularly happy about being up so late at night. We fled Bethlehem.
The journey to Egypt was rough. The Sinai desert provided very little food or water, and the nights were cold, but still we fled. We slept in caves when we could find them. Mary took care of Jesus as best she could, but the constant travelling and filthy conditions were tough on her. Fortunately, baby Jesus was quiet ticklish, and putting a smile on his face was often enough to make her smile, too. It was a few weeks before we entered Egypt and saw our first glimpses of the Nile. With some of our gold, we purchased a small home, not knowing how long we would be living here.
It was in this foreign land, the land that our forefathers were enslaved many generations ago, that Jesus turned two years old. A birthday is supposed to be a happy time, but I found it difficult to celebrate. Mary had baked Jesus a cake of figs and other fruits, which he was devouring happily, when I stepped outside to watch the sun go down.
To be honest, I was frustrated at God. “Really?” I cried out to him. “This was your plan? You bring the next king of Israel into the world, only to have him live in Egypt to escape being murdered? How am I supposed to deal with this? How am I supposed to make a life for him here? I still don’t even understand how to be a father to him! How can I possibly be the right person to take care of your son?”
I turned around. Mary was standing in the doorway. “Are you okay?” she asked. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to answer.
Mary handed me a small scroll. “What’s this?” I asked.
“A poem,” she replied. “Years ago, when the angel came to me and said I was to give birth to the son of God… I didn’t know what to think. As you know, I went away to visit Elizabeth, who was also about to give birth, and I spent a lot of time praying. During my prayer one evening, something very comforting came over me, and I wrote this.”
I took the scroll from Mary’s hand and began to read:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed
for the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
For the first time since leaving Israel, I felt peaceful. I kissed Mary, gave back her scroll, and then re-entered our new home. I opened the box of incense that we’d been given by the Magi, and breathed in deeply, the aroma reminding me of Israel. I felt new hope that someday we would return.
Beside me, I heard the sound of someone else breathing in deeply. I turned to see Jesus catching a whiff of incense. Then he looked at me with a big grin on his sticky face covered with cake crumbs.
I closed my eyes and bowed my head. “God, I don’t know how all of this fits in your plans, but I’m thankful to be part of them. You have done great things for me. Holy is your name.”
I opened my eyes, looked back at my boy, and smiled. “Happy birthday, Jesus.”