“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” – Matthew 1:23
The first time I saw Mary, she was a still a girl, walking with a water jar perfectly balanced on top of her head. She walked with grace and purpose, as if an inner light guided her steps. Our eyes met, and I felt an instant sense of recognition, as if we knew one another in some deep and ancient way. My heart was beating like the wings of a hummingbird, and my mouth felt strange and dry. “What are you looking at, Joseph?” my mother called. “Oh, mother,” I answered, a little dazed, “I think I just saw my wife.” My sisters laughed and began to tease, “Joseph is in love! Joseph wants a wife!” But my mother didn’t laugh. She looked at me thoughtfully, as if measuring the weight of my words. She shaded her eyes against the early morning light and looked at Mary, her small, slight figure made strangely tall by the water jug.
I was not much more than a boy at the time, but already I had strong hands and broad shoulders from working with my father. We were carpenters. You name it; we made it – benches, tables, doors, yokes, plows, troughs, even a rudder for your boat. We were known for our honesty and skill. No one was rich in Galilee in those days, except maybe the tax collectors. Half of all we earned went to fill the coffers of the Roman Empire. Sometimes late at night, I would hear my mother whispering her worries – how would they pay their taxes, put food on the table, and afford a bride price so that I could someday marry? My father Jacob was a righteous man. He said, “If God could provide a ram when Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, then God will certainly provide for us. God is with us!”
I loved the Sabbath day best. On Fridays, as sundown neared, my father would look up and say, “Shabbat shalom! The peace of the Sabbath be with you, my son!” We would put aside our work, bathe, anoint our heads with a few drops of precious oil, wrap ourselves in our tallits, and pray. Then, after dinner, we would listen as father told wonderful stories of God’s saving work for our people – leading them out of slavery in Egypt, delivering them from the Philistines by the hand of our forefather David, and bringing them home from exile in Babylon. Always, he finished the evening with the words, “Children, never forget – God is with us!”
As time passed, I worked hard and grew strong. Always, I kept my eyes open for Mary, and sometimes I saw her, returning from the cistern or buying in the market. I tried my very best to hide my interest, but always the beating of my heart like a hammer on a workbench sent a flush to my cheeks. Soon my sisters would notice and the teasing would begin anew: “Joseph is in love! Joseph wants a wife!” Then one day, as my father and I were walking home, we passed our street and continued walking to a different part of Nazareth. Thinking of my mother’s fresh bread, hot from the oven, ready for our supper, I said, “But Abba, where are you going? Mother will wonder what is keeping us.” My father gave me a knowing look, “Joseph, I think we should stop and visit with Joachim and Anna on the way home. What do you think?” All the blood drained from my face. Joachim and Anna were Mary’s parents. We were going to Mary’s house! I must have looked like I was ready to run away because my father linked his arm through mine and said, “Yes, Joseph! I think a little visit would be quite nice.”
Mary’s house was at the very edge of Nazareth. Her parents had a small olive grove, and in the middle of their grove stood an ancient press carved out of bedrock where the ripe fruit was rendered into precious oil. My father strode into their yard and called out, “Brother Joachim, Sister Anna, shalom!” The door opened, and Anna shooed a number of small children out into the yard, all curious eyes and smiling faces. They seemed to be expecting us. The table was set, and the wonderful aromas of baking bread, goat stew, and garlic filled the house. There with her mother was Mary. I noticed how grown up she had gotten, taller than her mother now, with her beautiful long hair covered like a grown woman.
We took seats at the table with Joachim while Anna and Mary buzzed about, bringing savory dishes for us to taste. I wanted to say shalom, but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out, except a funny little noise like the mewling of a kitten. Thank goodness that everyone ignored me. I closed my mouth and pretended to be very interested in what Joachim and my father had to say. On and on, they talked, about weather, olives, fishing, and taxes. Anna and Mary disappeared into the yard when a loud squawking suggested that the children were up to no good with the chickens.
As we were preparing to leave, my father said to Joachim, “Your oldest girl, what is her name?” “Ah!” Joachim smiled, “Mary! The apple of my eye! Strong, beautiful, kind, righteous, hardworking! Such a treasure!” “Mary,” my father said thoughtfully, “She must be getting old enough to think about a husband.” At this, I immediately felt sweat pouring down my sides and collecting in a large puddle on the bench. “Yes, a husband!” Joachim answered, as if he had never thought of this before. “But where is one to find a husband worthy of my Mary in all of Nazareth?” I began to feel dizzy, and my hammering heart threatened to explode right out of my chest. I could tell that Joachim’s attention had shifted to me, so I looked at the floor and held my breath. “Yes,” my father said in that same thoughtful tone, “Where indeed? Perhaps the Lord will provide. God is with us! Well, Joachim, we must be on our way.” We stood up and the men embraced. I blushed as I heard Joachim whisper to my father, “He doesn’t talk much, does he?” and my father whispered back, “No, but he is like Mary, strong and well made, kind, righteous, and hardworking.” As we walked back down the lane away from Mary’s house, my father casually asked, “Joseph, don’t you think Mary would make a fine wife?” Suddenly I found my tongue, “Yes, Father, the very best!”
A week later, we went back to Mary’s house with my whole family. The rabbi and two witnesses came along. My father brought more money than I had ever seen. How he had saved it from the tax collectors, I will never know. He paid the bride price for Mary, the rabbi blessed our betrothal, and the witnesses said, “Amen!” It was official now – I would be Mary’s husband and she would be my wife. I don’t know who was more frightened, Mary or me. Joachim poured wine for us, and my father raised a glass, saying, “L’ Chaim! God is with us!” Out in the yard, I could hear my sisters singing with Mary’s sisters, “Joseph is in love! Joseph has a wife!” In a year’s time, we would celebrate our marriage. For now, Mary would stay in her parent’s house and continue to learn and grow, while my father and I would prepare a place for her in our house, adding a room to our home. That night, by the light of the oil lamp, I began to work on a special project, a wedding gift for Mary, a cradle where we would rock our first child.
I’m not sure when I began to wonder if something was wrong. One day I saw Mary’s mother in the market with her younger children. When I called out, “Anna, shalom!” she nodded and hurried off. The neighbors began to whisper, and when I approached, they would fall silent. I no longer saw my strong and graceful Mary returning from the cistern, a water jar perfectly balanced on her head. Then one night Joachim knocked at our door. He looked tired and worried. “Jacob, come walk with me,” he waved to my father, and the two men strolled off into the warm night air.
The next morning, I noticed that my father had the same tired and worried look that I had seen on Joachim’s face. It was a Friday, and all day long he was quiet, as if deep in thought. As the evening drew near, for the first time in my life, I was the first to say, “Shabbat shalom! The peace of the Sabbath be with you, father!” “Ah, Joseph,” he smiled back, “It is good to remember the Sabbath day. God is with us.” We went home to bathe and pray and eat. After dinner, my father told stories, strange stories of our ancestors: Abraham and Sarah blessed with a baby in their old age; Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into giving her the child she deserved; Ruth, the Moabite, who came to Israel a poor widow, only to become the great-grandmother of a king. One by one, the children fell asleep, and then my mother went in to bed, and only my father and I were left, seated in silence in the flickering lamplight.
My eyes were heavy with sleep when my father said, “Joseph, Mary is with child.” At once I was wide awake, trying to make sense of what I had heard. He continued with great seriousness, “You know, Joseph, in places like Jerusalem, they may not honor the old ways and wait for the wedding day, but we are not like that here. You have brought shame upon this family and upon your bride.” My mind was reeling, trying to understand. “Mary is with child?” I asked. My father raised his eyebrows and opened his hands in a little gesture, as if to say, “What did you expect?” “But father,” I blurted out, “we didn’t, it’s impossible, no!” My father only shook his head, “Yes, Joseph. It is true.” His shoulders slumped, and with a long sigh he buried his face in his rough hands. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. It felt as if the walls of the house were closing in around me. I jumped up, sending my chair over backwards, and ran out into the streets of Nazareth.
For hours I walked, trying to puzzle it out. My father thought that I had been with Mary, and we had conceived a child, but I knew otherwise. That meant that Mary had been with someone else. But who? And how? And why? It made no sense. Mary, so strong and kind and righteous, would never dishonor her family or our betrothal. Would she? Perhaps I had been wrong about her, blinded by love. Perhaps she was laughing at me. She didn’t want to marry me at all, and this was the only way she could get out of it. What should I do? Righteousness required that I tell the truth and release Mary from our engagement. Then she would be free to marry the father of her child. But what if he was a dishonorable man and rejected her? Then she would have to depend upon the good will of her family to support her. I knew of women who had been turned out by their families, who were forced to earn their keep on the streets as prostitutes. I had even heard stories of angry husbands who, when confronted with their wives’ adultery, demanded that they be stoned. I thought of my beloved Mary publicly shamed, or selling herself for a living with a baby on her hip, or broken, bleeding, and dying upon the ground, and my heart broke. I began to weep, shaking my fist at the night sky, lamenting the loss of our future together and the end of my dreams for a happy home with my wonderful bride.
When I got back to the house, my father had gone to bed. I sat at the table and stared at the oil lamp. My eyes became heavy, and I nodded. Before I knew it, my head was on the table, sound asleep. “Joseph!” Was I dreaming? “Joseph!” I heard a voice. “Joseph!” I looked around, and there was an angel, a messenger from God, fiery and bright! I hid my face in fear. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’” Suddenly, I was wide-awake. I looked around the room, now empty and quiet. I tried to think. I had heard of angels appearing to my forefathers, to Jacob and to Joshua and to Isaiah. Was this truly an angel appearing to me? Could a virgin conceive? Would God choose Mary and me to raise a holy child, a child to become the great salvation of our people?
I remembered the ancient stories of God’s saving work for Israel. I remembered God’s faithfulness. My father always said, “God is with us,” but until that moment, I don’t think I truly knew what he meant. God is always at work in the lives of faithful people, seeking their wholeness and redemption. Now God was asking me to be a part of God’s great plan, to create a safe place, a holy family, where a Messiah could grow. In that moment, I knew what I must do. I put out the lamp and went to bed, slipping into a troubled sleep where I dreamt of royal stars rising in the east and astrologer kings crossing desert sands with rare gifts.
When I awoke the next morning, my father was already up, wrapped in his tallit, praying the ancient prayers. I took out my tallit, touched it to my lips, and we prayed together. When we finished, I turned to my father and said, “Abba, it’s time that I brought my bride home. I think I can have Mary’s cradle ready just in time to welcome a son.” My father smiled. “Ah, Joseph, I see you are indeed a righteous man. It will be good to welcome your wife into our home.” He gripped me in a big bear hug that squeezed the air right out of my lungs. “So,” he said as we prepared to break our fast, “You think it’s going to be a boy, do you? Have you given any thought to the name Emmanuel? God is with us!”
This story is from my upcoming book Testament.