It’s Christmas Sunday in many churches this week. Time to sneak in Christmas carol or two among the Advent hymns. Maybe there is a Lessons and Carols service or choir cantata or pageant. After all the prophecies from Isaiah and John the Baptist we finally hear the story of Jesus’ birth. A few days early but many parishioners may not be with us on Christmas Eve for services. And there might be visitors or those members who only come to worship at Christmas or Easter. So often we elect to bring Christmas into worship a bit early (or maybe a congregation’s traditions dictate our choice!) so all will hear the good news of Jesus’ birth in story and song.
The images we encounter in the gospel from Matthew echo forward and backward in time through Isaiah, the Psalm and Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Images of a vulnerable young woman who is with child, a leader coming to save the people of Israel, messages from God in dreams and prophecies. People are in the darkness of sorrow and impending tragedy, eating and drinking tears. God’s face shines. One is coming from God’s right hand who will literally be God-with-us.
The writer of Matthew gives us more information about Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, than any of the other gospels. Often Joseph is lost in our Christmas celebrations, in the songs and stories. Once I received a nativity set sent from a gift shop in a hotel in Bethlehem and it didn’t even have a Joseph! I assumed it was a defective boxed set. Still it was a poignant reminder that Joseph can get short shrift in the Christmas story. What do we learn from Joseph? Are there stories that illuminate his very human faith and love, the courage and generosity of spirit it took to be the Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father? Can we create stories from our own experiences of faithful, loving, courageous, generous fathers or father figures in our lives?
I found an interesting literary tale that could spark our own imaginings about Joseph. It is entitled “Chris Carpenter.” It is predominantly tradition that tells us that Joseph was a carpenter. There is one mention of Jesus as the carpenter’s son in Matthew 13:55. We do know from Matthew that Joseph, like his ancestor of old, was a dreamer and set great store by his dreams. What character traits could a dreamer and a carpenter have in common?
Chris was a carpenter who lived the little town of Bethlehem, nestled in the hill country of the Missouri Ozarks. He was known throughout the area for this beautiful artistic and unique oak furniture. People, rich and poor, came to him for his help in furnishing their homes and businesses.
Among his rich customers were the local banker, the county judge and the local parish priest. For the banker he made a massive oak desk on which he could review all his accounts and count the money the bank made week by week. And Chris gave the banker a “30% professional discount” which made the bank even more money. The banker was delighted though he did not consider Chris a real professional like himself.
For the judge Chris made several large bookcases in which to put all his professional and philosophical books. The judge was the “liberal thinker” in town and he didn’t have much to do with the church in town because religion was for the poor and uneducated. Chris also gave the judge the 30% discount.
For the priest Chris made a large ornate and very tall pulpit when the church was renovated. From its height the priest could look down and see every parishioner. He knew who was listening and who was not. And he could proclaim his ideas like a caption issuing orders to the troops. The priest talked so much about how grateful God was for Chris’s work that Chris gave the church a 50% discount.
The more modest and poorer people in town paid Chris with dry goods and hams and gifts from the gardens. Or maybe he made them something, a cradle, a small table, a dollhouse, simply for the cost of the wood.
Two months before Christmas, Chris, announced that he was making something very special for Christmas that year, a Christmas House. He made the announcement in the local tavern to his friend Rhonda, the red-haired waitress, and the three local cowboys who didn’t ride horses, but worked constructions jobs when they could find them. They wore hats and boots and fancied themselves adventurers. Word got around town about the Christmas House. Everyone in town was quite curious. They knew what a dreamer Chris could be.
A week before Christmas seven people received invitations so come to Chris’ farm at 10 pm on Christmas Eve to a magical Christmas House surprise. The banker, the judge and the priest all received one. And so did Rhonda and the three cowboys. The first three did not really want to go, especially when they heard who else was invited. Riff raff! None of them considered Chris, the carpenter and cabinet maker to be a professional like themselves. But they remembered the discounts Chris had given them and they grudgingly accepted the invitation. The other four were delighted and ecstatic. They could hardly wait!
Christmas Eve came and the three “professionals” arrived at the farm and drove up, each in his own car, and parked in front of the Christmas House just at 10. Right behind them came the other four in the own of the cowboys beat up old pick-up trucks. It was clear they had started their party a bit earlier in the evening.
All was quiet and dark at the farm with just few lights on the in the barn. Then the barn door was thrown open and a beautiful soft light came slipping out followed by the sound of Christmas carols playing gently. And Chris Carpenter stood in the doorway welcoming his guests.
They entered the barn and their mouths dropped open. There in the barn was the biggest dining table they had ever seen. It was at least eighteen feet tall. And it was surrounded by eight thirteen foot tall chairs. The woodwork was gorgeous. And the guests could just barely see that there were plates and goblets and the smell of roast beef was wafting down toward them. “Welcome!” cried Chris. “And come on up!” Then he swung himself up on the first rung of a giant chair and showed them how to climb to the top.
The guest followed. The first three climbed quite reluctantly and grumbling under their breaths. The other four let out whoops and hollers and laughed their way to the top. When every one reached the top of their chairs they found they could still barely reach the top of the table. It came to their chins. This really made the banker, judge and priest mad. They felt foolish and infantile. The others just giggled.
There was indeed an amazing and abundant dinner on the table. And there were giant plates and spoons and forks and knives. Chris looked at his guests and said, “Let us pray…” The banker, judge and priest looked angrily at one another and their looks said, “This man is crazy! What are we doing here? How insulting! How can we leave soon?” The others were lost in the beauty of the meal and the carvings and the prayer.
As soon as Chris said “Amen” the banker sputtered, “What is the meaning of all of this? We do not find your little joke funny! We are busy men with important matters to attend to and families of our own. And Father has a service to lead at midnight!”
“Yes”, cried the priest. “I have many things to do for the mass.” And the judge yelled over his shoulder as he began to climb down his chair, “So do I!” The other two followed his lead. All three left the barn and the others heard their cars roar out of the farmyard.
Chris looked at his four remaining friends. “Would you like to leave as well?” “No way!” cried Rhonda. “This is a little nuts….we want to stay…if you’ll have us. Its crazy! You feel so small with all this bigness around you. Yet you also feel like you are a kid again and someone is taking care of you.”
The cowboys, who had taken off their hats for the prayer, nodded vigorously. “Yeah,” they all chimed in. “It feels crazy, but great. Makes you wonder if there is someone somewhere taking care of you….someone much bigger.”
Chris nodded and said, “Let me show you something else!” Climbing onto the table he led them down the length of it. At the end he pulled a rope hanging from the ceiling and the great hayloft door above them lifted open. There was a brilliant clear winter night filled with stars! Rhonda and the cowboys stared and stared their hearts filled with wonder and awe. It was more inspiring the Midnight Mass with it church full of candles. They felt so small, yet so comforted. They were not alone in their smallness.
Rhonda spoke first. “Chris, you may be crazy! But I don’t care what anyone says…that banker or judge or the priest….” She turned around and Chris was gone. He was nowhere to be seen. She turned back to the cowboys and giggled a bit. “Its just like they say, guys….’Christmas is for the kids.’ ”
“Chris Carpenter” is from Edward Hays’ book, The Christmas Eve Storyteller (Forest of Peace Books, Inc., Leavenworth, KS; 1992). I have paraphrased it here. When telling a literary story it is important to always give the author credit and let people know the source.
Another contemporary take on a carpenter with a very different character than Chris come in the book, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Mass; 1995). In this tale an embittered and widowed carpenter encounters a widow and her son when they ask him to carve them a crèche for Christmas.
Questions for the Preacher/Storyteller
- Chris could certainly be a Christ figure in the story. However as I read the tale I wondered what it could tell me of Joseph, the carpenter, the man who raised Jesus. I wondered if this story could help me craft a tale about Joseph. Did Joseph have a heart for people like Chris did? And did he teach this to Jesus? Does the craft of carpentry hone the craft of dreaming?
- Was Joseph aware of his humble status and yet have the dignity and integrity of his beliefs? What does he learn about himself in his dream with the angel? Is his obedience just because of the prophecy?
- What can we learn about faith, courage and love from contrasting the characters of King Ahaz in the Isaiah passage and Joseph, the carpenter?
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2013. To be used or re-printed only with permission.