HERE IS JOSEPH, way down in the bottom left corner of the icon. He is sitting all alone on a tree stump, his hand in his head. His back is turned to the entire Christmas story. This is strange for the Westener who always sees Joseph at the very heart of the Bethlehem events - standing with a light over the Holy Child. What's going on?
Joseph is seated this way in all Eastern Icons of the Nativity, though usually there are a couple of figures standing before him dressed as shepherds. We might wonder if this icon isn't really larger than what we can see here. Perhaps it is a wall painting and the "shepherd" figures are around the corner of the room. Nevertheless, these are devil-tempters who come to Joseph disguised as shepherds, sent to tempt Joseph into non-believing.
Joseph, especially in Saint Matthew's Gospel, has been an important player, what with his numerous angel dream-visitations who have instructed him in the protection of the Mother and Child. Now it seems he is having a moment: Is this for real? Is this becoming too much to bear? Is this Child really born of God's Holy Spirit? Has Mary really been faithful? Poor Joseph, we can understand his feeling confounded. But we know from the rest of the story that when danger was near soon after this event, he was up and off to Egypt (of all places) to continue his role as guardian.
Sitting by Joseph here in this little corner of tempting disillusionment, we might hold the inner place of our own fearful doubts - not dogma doubts - but the struggle to believe in God's accompany-ing, remedy-ing presence: during unemployment, when overwhelmed with fatigue, when success is lacking, joy is fleeting, money is tight, life is shifting sands, the losses seemingly too much to bear. Let Joseph reassure us that heaven is near and God is patient in understanding.