Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Spare a thought for Joseph
It’s Christmas. You’re going to be in the nativity play. What character would you most like to be?” Steve Tomkins (the esteemed editor of this magazine) and I, armed with a video camera, were stopping people in their tracks at Greenbelt festival a few years ago and bothering them with this festive question – in the middle of the August bank holiday weekend. Amazingly, people stopped to talk to us, and their answers were enlightening.
“I’d want to be the donkey,” said one man. “Why?” we asked. “I’m a bit of an ass,” he replied. We thought that was bad until another would-be standup comedian told us he would like to play that well known cast member, the flea: “Because Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt.”
As you can tell, things weren’t going all that brilliantly with our out-of-season survey. But then we noticed something strange happening to two of the play’s central characters. Almost every girl we spoke to wanted to be Mary, while no boy wanted to be Joseph. They were happy to be a wise man, soldier, shepherd, Herod – even the arse-end of a camel. “Give me the innkeeper,” said one chap: “You get a bit of attitude, a bit of shouting, a bit of door-slamming.” This is ironic, as there’s actually no innkeeper in the Gospel stories. But there were no takers for the dressing gown, tea towel and flip-flops of Joseph.
You can see why. Joseph is the nice guy who gets the girl, but frankly, his best moment is leading Mary on a donkey from one bit of scenery to another, only to be upstaged by that non-existent, door-slamming innkeeper. Most of the other roles have plenty of room for pantomime. I remember one church’s nativity play where the shepherds got bored sitting round their campfire made of logs, with crinkly tinfoil for the flames, and amused themselves by popping one of the toy sheep on the fire. Joseph could never do that. He’s too busy moping around after Mary and brooding on the bad hand he’s been dealt by the director of the play (and by God). He’s the invisible man of nativity plays.
Joseph’s role is to accept the joyful news that someone got his girlfriend pregnant, her best explanation being that she met an angel. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak calls Joseph “God’s cuckold”, and that’s how he was often portrayed in the English mystery plays. No wonder the medieval audiences greeted him with hoots of bawdy laughter.
Could things get any worse for Joseph? Yes they could. A century after Christ, crazy folk tales of Jesus’ childhood were all the rage and Joseph didn’t come out of them very well. He was depicted as a hopeless carpenter, with young Jesus having to miraculously stretch planks of wood his dad had cut too short. It’s like that joke where Jesus runs to the Nazareth workshop and says: “Dad, did you just call me?” Joseph replies: “Oh, sorry Jesus, I just hit my thumb with a hammer.”
There was more. According to the folk stories, Mary was a virgin not only when she got pregnant, but forever and ever afterwards. But how could this be, since she was married? The answer: Joseph was 90. You’d think this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, given all the plank-lengthening miracles going on. But in the Seventh Century, a church council endorsed Mary and Joseph’s peculiar domestic arrangement, which the council considered more “holy” than regular marriage.
It took 1,000 years and more before repairs began on Joseph’s reputation. Since the time of St Francis, he has become the patron saint of fathers and carpenters, and in the 1950s he was given the job of fighting against communism by becoming “St Joseph the Worker”. He even has churches named after him now.
But on the down side, Joseph has also become the unofficial patron saint of selling your house. Apparently, the best way to get a serious buyer is to bury a small statue of St Joseph upside down next to your “For Sale” sign. The practice is so popular in the States (where you can buy a St Joseph Home Seller Kit for just $9.95, statue included) that he is known as “God’s underground real estate agent”.
So this Christmas, spare a thought for Joseph. After 2,000 years of being kicked out of Mary’s bed, mocked as an old man, upstaged in nativity plays and buried upside down, it’s time Jesus’ dad was celebrated as the young, sexy and decent man he probably was. He deserves it. The man was a saint.
This article was published in the December 2015/January 2016 edition of Reform.