Does Joseph belong in the Nativity scene?

Thomas Peek

The Christmas story is ideal for an honest and open discussion of the topic of the (Holy) family. At the same time, it offers plenty of material to reflect on our own tasks in the world. How would each of us have felt as one of the shepherds to whom, during their vigil, first an angel and soon thereafter “the multitude of the heavenly hosts” appeared to announce the Glad Tidings?

To be honest, at the latest by the time I was a pupil in upper middle school I no longer understood these Christmas pictures, although they were still familiar to me not that long previously. They said that the Son of God had come to earth. He was supposed to have been laid in a manger and was called the “Saviour of the World”! That hardly sounded convincing to me at the time. Anyone who notices the critical looks and some of the comments of upper school pupils during the Nativity plays today also senses little of a devout mood. A remark from Rudolf Steiner quickly suggests itself: human consciousness has changed fundamentally since the birth of Christ. Humanity today has a much more wakeful consciousness. Now we try to act less out of feeling and more out of carefully considered thinking. The Christmas story can hardly be grasped with reason alone. Consequently, critical tones are almost inevitably raised at Advent. Nevertheless, it continues to touch many people on an emotional level.

The absent father

In the reality of our modern lives, many men separate themselves completely or partially from the traditional role of a father at an early stage. There are individual reasons for this. Single fathers should be explicitly mentioned here!

In the discussions during Advent in our newly formed class 5, it soon became apparent that growing up with both biological parents has become the exception rather than the rule. Several pupils in the class sought or maintained contact with their biological fathers, others found their father in their mother’s new partner, others again did not want to have anything at all to do with fathers (for the time being). This became very clear in succinct statements.

When in the course of the Christmas story it became apparent that there was a need to talk about the topic of “fathers”, some pupils demanded that Joseph should definitely be included and thought about specifically in our Christmas blackboard drawing. A smaller group, however, emphasised that the “progenitor” might well be dispensed with altogether.

To begin with, the teacher replied, largely without argument, that Joseph was really traditionally a part of it. Soon the next question to the class arose: how old should our Joseph be? Immediately there was almost unanimity: “About as old as Mary, just as old as (my) dad”! Even though some of them knew that Joseph is traditionally depicted as being much older than Mary, this idea is not very convincing for today’s children just before they reach their teenage years. When a girl demanded that Joseph must absolutely treat the little Christ child with love, most of them emphatically agreed as a matter of course. That was obvious, after all! But there were also classmates who at best nodded silently. The demands for a loving, young Joseph, however, gave the class teacher pause for thought.

Joseph’s loyalty

Joseph of Nazareth is not to be found in many old nativity scenes at all. If he is painted, he usually looks worried, often tired. Sometimes he appears pensive, even pale. Traditionally, Joseph is depicted as being much older than Mary. Perhaps his assumed advanced age refers to a spiritual maturity. In any case, we learn nothing about Joseph’s lifespan from the three mentions of him in the Bible.

He did, however, stand faithfully by Mary. Joseph took care of her child, officially pretended to be the father and even saved Jesus’ life by fleeing from Herod’s murdering hordes. These stories commanded the respect of our class. It was even possible to read in the eyes of individual boys that Joseph had become something of a role model for them. At the same time the class became more attentive in the search for an ideal paternal image.

The loving father

But what should the blackboard drawing of the Holy Family look like for our class? In any event, Joseph the father had to take on a central role. Few pictures of the birth of Christ since the Romantic period give us a glimpse of his masculine strength and charisma. In depictions from antiquity and the Middle Ages, Joseph sometimes waits apart from his wife and the baby Jesus. He then appears introverted – or rather, as if lost in a dream. That was not, of course, how he had to be depicted on the blackboard! For the class, Joseph was a proud, happy father who was very concerned about the welfare of his young son.

It was not just two otherwise very reserved pupils who were touched by a quotation from Honoré de Balzac: “Only when I became a father did I understand God”. Did Joseph also understand God only after he involuntarily became a foster father? Presumably no biological father who feels such religious warmth will want to separate voluntarily from his son.

Apart from his name, we also learn from the Bible that Joseph was a carpenter. So he practised an honourable trade. In the areas of the eastern Mediterranean region which had been largely deforested for centuries, this certainly required some organisational skill at the time of the birth of Christ. And immediately our class discussions extended to the further life of Jesus. When he was still a boy, the son followed in his father’s footsteps. Presumably this was the custom for the first-born among the rural population at that time. However, some pupils also argued that Jesus simply wanted to become a carpenter out of love for his (foster) father. In any case, we assumed that there was a very close bond between father and son from early childhood.

When the class was asked what posture Joseph, as a loving father, should adopt with his newborn son, the girl mentioned above spontaneously and silently began to cradle an imaginary child, which for her indicated a loving welcome and protection at the same time. For the class, this was probably the most decisive and touching moment of our conversations. Joseph also had to adopt this cradling posture on the blackboard.

The sometimes difficult family

Even the best family community is not perfect. Probably the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus also faced inner and outer trials. We experience that family structures are changing. In our culture, the family has long been many things other than a father and a mother with two children.

But every human being absolutely needs family solidarity and the security of reliably being there for each other. Basic life knowledge is imparted in the family and in the classroom. Here basic trust is created through affection and love. If this succeeds reasonably well, it can support us through the rest of our lives. We experience this anew every day through our pupils.

Every teacher must also have a sense of hidden or taboo topics in their class and signal a willingness to talk about them, regardless of the curriculum. It is important to talk or work with pupils equally about and on beautiful and pleasant as well as difficult subjects. In a younger middle school class, it is important to begin by encouraging such unconscious questions. Sometimes the class teacher here also takes on the tasks of a fatherly Josef.

Each class develops its own special Christmas picture. At the express wish of the pupils, our blackboard drawing accompanied the class into February. One pupil only wiped it off in time for carnival.

About the author: Thomas Peek is a class teacher at the Ita Wegman School in Benefeld.