The Fifth Sunday of Lent - Choral Evensong - Eve of the Feast of St Joseph

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Hosea 11.1-9; Luke 2.41-52

In Homer’s epic poem, ‘The Odyssey’, Telemachus, when asked by Pallas Athene whether or not he was the son of Odysseus, replied: “It is a wise child who knows its own father." That’s where the saying comes from that we’re more familiar with and which came to my mind as we prepare this evening to celebrate the Feast of St Joseph tomorrow.

Who was Joseph? The problem in answering what seems on the face of it a very easy question with an obvious answer, is highlighted for us in the Second Lesson for this Evensong, the familiar story of the unfortunate losing of Jesus on a family visit to Jerusalem.

The reason that the Holy Family were there was most probably because this was the occasion of Jesus’ Bar mitzvah.  The family had gone with friends and neighbours from Nazareth back to Jerusalem and then, thinking, not unreasonably, that the lad was with his friends, they all set off without checking.  But when the end of the first days travel home comes along they discover, just like in that scene in ‘Home Alone’, that they’ve mislaid their child.

So Mary and Joseph hurry back and find Jesus with the teachers seated there, debating with them and impressing them with his knowledge, his wisdom, his insights and this is where the confusion is then highlighted.  Mary says to Jesus, and you can almost hear her saying it

‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

But Jesus responds

‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Mary refers to Joseph as the father but Jesus is talking about God.  Joseph in all of this never says a word, in fact he never does say a word.  Instead he dreams.

There are two famous Josephs in the Bible, the one in Genesis, sold into slavery by his brothers of the multi-coloured dream coat fame, and the one in the Gospels to whom Mary is betrothed.  Both of these men are dreamers.  The first Joseph’s dreams get him in and get him out of trouble, first setting his brothers against him and then, ultimately, winning him the favour of Pharaoh.

The second Joseph’s dreams are of angels who speak to him of the role that he’ll play, not as father in the conventional way but as the one who’ll care for Mary and her child.  So he’s warned in dreams all along and takes them to one place of safety after another – and never once says a word.

And after this episode in the Temple he never appears again.  He’s referred to but only as a means of pigeonholing Jesus, ‘isn’t he the son of the carpenter’.  Everyone is confused.

But we celebrate Joseph not as someone who shared the confusion or who sought the limelight, but as someone who was deeply attuned to God, who knew his role in life and played it out, despite the confusion that surrounded him then and surrounds him now. 

In that beautiful passage we heard in the First Lesson from the prophet Hosea, we hear the most wonderful description of fatherly love

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with bands of love.
I was to them like those
   who lift infants to their cheeks.
   I bent down to them and fed them.

This describes the man, who embraced fatherhood. Joseph didn’t need to say a word, he just needed to act, to be there, to be faithful, and to dream.  Sometimes that is the very best that we can do, even if it confuses others around us.