Today is the feast of Saint Joseph, but before we talk about that, I need to share with you one of the best Christmas presents I received this year: a llama needle felting kit! Needle felting is like sculpting with wool. You stick unspun wool with a special barbed needle that jumbles up the fibers. Using your fingers and the needle, you direct the fibers into objects.
I had always been in awe of people who said that knitting was meditative. That was certainly not my experience of my failed attempts at knitting, but I quickly discovered that meditative place with needle felting. I purchased more supplies and started needle felting other animals for my youngest kids. They also joined in with their own projects and it has become a fun activity to do together.
I quickly realized that my love of creches (see my last Grow Christians post) could meet my new love of needle felting. I started with a simple of creche of Mary holding Jesus. As I got into that meditative zone, I realized that my attention turned toward them. I contemplated the incarnation. I felt that I was drawing closer to God as Mary and Jesus took shape in my hands. I found that it was also an act of intercessory prayer with my attention turning toward struggling parishioners and friends.
My kids wanted Joseph added to the creche, so I made a new one with Joseph off to the side, towering a bit over Mary and Jesus, as he often is in many creche scenes. But I was quickly disquieted. Joseph seemed like an afterthought, an accessory. Besides, wouldn’t he have wanted a chance to hold his newborn son? I went to work on a new design.
The kids suggested he sit on a milking stool, so I started there. As my hands shaped this little wool stool, I thought about Joseph, the carpenter. Carpenter is a little too precise of a translation. Scripture calls him a tekton, a broader Greek word that could mean carpenter, but could alternatively mean craftsman or builder, and could have referred to working with wood or stone. Whatever Joseph did specifically, we know that he worked with his hands. I drew closer to him as I worked with mine. What kind of projects did Joseph do, I wondered? Nazareth was a tiny town, estimated as having a few hundred residents at most. One suggestion is that Joseph would have traveled to work in nearby Sepphoris, which was in a big rebuilding phase during his lifetime. Did he ever make a stool to rest his weary legs in the evening after walking the 4 miles home from work? There is a holiness to everyday work embodied in Joseph’s twin vocations of tekton and parenthood.
After finishing the stool, I made Joseph and Jesus. I designed them so that Jesus would be laying in Joseph’s lap positioned so that they could look at each other’s faces. As I shaped the wool, I noticed that this was a tender, loving position. As I drew closer to them in my contemplation, I thought about Joseph’s love for Jesus.
Joseph was the stepfather, not the biological father. Yet scripture makes it clear that this in no way mitigated his parental role. Both Matthew and Luke even trace Jesus’ Davidic line through Joseph! He took Jesus to the temple to be presented. He protected Jesus’ life from Herod. He worried when Jesus was lost in Jerusalem at age twelve. My own experience as both a stepfather and a biological father is that a stepparent’s love may be different, but it can be just as deep as the love for one’s biological kids. This love is a choice made when marrying into the family.
Joseph doesn’t seem to have survived to see Jesus’ ministry, and therefore little of him is captured in the biblical story. Yet, it is there. Scripture doesn’t give us many brushstrokes, but it paints a picture of a man who loved his step-son. He may often be off to the side, but today, we bring him to the center and offer our gratitude for his witness.