"The Father Who Couldn’t Be There"

(when his son was born)

- - A Christmas Meditation, by Rev. J. Vance Eastridge, 1998

"Did you hear the news?

A baby was born last night over in the innkeeper’s stable."

"They tell me that it’s a poor carpenter and his wife - came here to register for the census. It’s kinda sad, you know, -- so far away from home - just strangers everywhere, her mother couldn’t be here to help, she was back home. Just the two of them -- out there in a stable."

A conversation like that likely took place in Bethlehem. People have always been curious and especially in small towns ... and babies just aren’t born in stables, they’re born in the warmth and comfort of homes.

It was kinda sad, not just for the reason observed by the women of Bethlehem, but for another reason. The baby was born and his daddy couldn’t be there to hold him in his arms. His daddy couldn’t be there to put his finger in the baby’s palm and feel the fingers tighten around it. He couldn’t be there to search the baby’s face to see who he looks like. That’s usually one of the first things parents talk about.

There was a surrogate father that night at the mother’s side. He didn’t remain surrogate for long. Looking into the face of the beautiful young woman he had courted for so long and had finally asked to marry, remembering the months of waiting and sharing the changes that come with expectant motherhood; by the time the baby was born, he was feeling as if the baby were really his own. When the baby focused his eyes for the first time , it was Joseph’s face into which he looked. When he learned to say "daddy", it was Joseph whose ears danced with the sound. Over the years, the child born that night would be referred to as "Joseph’s son."

But, God was the father. It was he who visited Mary on that warm moonlit evening and in an act of divine love brought about the beginning of life. Now, it was he who looked from a distance while angels filled the skies, singing natal songs; while shepherds trudged from the hills to see a little baby in swaddling clothes. He watched as wise men journeyed long distances to bring gifts. He had to stay away so that the child’s life would be normal and human. Gabriel might have whispered to God, "He’s a mighty fine-looking boy." God would have nodded.

They were all there that night ... everybody except the grandparents and the father who just couldn’t come.

The father would watch out for his son, but from a distance. He would send an angel to warn Joseph to take the baby and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s reach. He would tell him when to come back. But, he couldn’t be the day-by-day father who would take walks in the hills, go fishing together, and talk about father-son things. He couldn’t be there to hold the crying boy after a skinned knee or hurt feelings at synagogue school. He couldn’t be the one to teach the boy to use his hands in a carpenter’s shop. He couldn’t even tell him stories in the evening. How sad it must have been -- to be a father who couldn’t even meet his son’s eyes in meaningful times of bonding.

They did talk, though, even if it couldn’t be in a physical setting. The boy, and later the man, would go into the hills and with clenched fingers and closed eyes they would talk. On the top of a mountain they would talk, in a fig garden they would talk, and occasionally the boy would hear his father’s voice booming from the clouds, "You’re my son and I’m proud of you."

The father watched as his son grew out of childhood and became a man. He watched while his son struggled with temptation in a wilderness. He couldn’t help his son, that would spoil the whole purpose for his son’s being born, but he could send angels to comfort him. One of the hardest moments for the father was to hear his son plead with him to change his mind about completing the purpose for his being born. He was relieved when his son said, "but not my will, but your will be done. He knew if he asked his father to intervene in his life he would do so. He said as much that night outside the garden when he said, "If I asked my father, he would send hundreds of angels to protect me." It must have been the saddest day in the father’s life when he saw his son dying and couldn’t do anything about it without undoing everything that had happened thus far. The son could weep. He had done so times before. If the father can weep, there must have been uncontrollable tears in heaven that day.

When the son died and he came to the life that is prepared for all who are reconciled to the father, the son sat down by his father’s side, and for the first time, a boy and his dad were together to stay. Joseph probably stood nearby and smiled, thinking, "I did a good job bringing him up. Look at him, he’s everything a father wants his son to be."

But, that’s the end of the story. Let’s go back to the beginning. On that star-filled night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, there was saddness mingled with the joy of the skies, joy because a baby had been born, sadness because the daddy had to look from a distance. He held the baby in his heart, but not in his arms.