Of all the characters in the Christmas story, the one who touches me most is Joseph. In The Greatest Story Ever Told, he was a walk-on, a part with no dialogue. But if you read between the lines, he has more to say than Hamlet.

You have to believe he was conscientious and thoughtful. Look at the woman he chose. He knew what he was doing.He also strikes me as the strong, silent type. The kind of man who likes to do the right thing.

The problem was doing the right thing, for Joseph, also meant getting himself into hot water.

He was a lot like you and me.

To begin with, I figure Joseph spent a good deal of time looking for a woman he could love and trust; someone who would never bring him grief. When he finally finds her and proposes, however, he learns she's expecting someone else's child.

I can see Joseph shaking his head.

No, I can see him banging his head against a pillar in his carpenter's shop.

If you've heard this story before, of course, you know that his misgivings were finally put to rest. His attitude just needed a little adjusting.

So, nine months go by. It's tax time now, and Joseph knows he and Mary have to travel to Bethlehem. Now Joseph's no fool. He knows Bethlehem is going to look like Times Square on New Year's Eve, and he knows there are no thousand-room Hiltons to handle the overflow. His wife's due any day, his customers are leaving town. My guess is Joseph debated leaving town a few days early to make sure Mary had a comfortable place to stay.

And it's my guess something came up. Some duty. Maybe he'd promised to finish a table for his mother-in-law before setting out. Maybe a neighbor needed to get his house up before a storm blew in.

Whatever it was, Joseph decided to do the right thing. He worked right up to the last minute. And because of that he ends up staggering door to door with a wife that's nine months and 30 seconds pregant, hoping to find a warm niche where she can lie down.

I can see Joseph shaking his head.

I can see him explaining to Mary why he'd decided to stay home until the last minute. He may have said the words that husbands have said to wives since Adam met Eve: "I know, honey. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time. . ."

Again, everything works out for the best. In fact, Joseph may have begun to believe someone was watching out for him. He may have decided the whole adventure might make a pretty good story some day.

But Joseph wasn't through scrambling.

The next time we meet him, he and Mary are homeward bound from a celebration in Jerusalem. A day goes by before Joseph realizes he's misplaced Jesus.

Jesus was left behind in the big city.

Most parents know the guilt and embarrassment that comes with misplacing a child - from driving off and leaving one of the kids behind. But I'm sure, for Joseph, driving away and leaving Jesus behind went beyond embarrassing. It went all the way to catastrophic.

Yet I know why it happened.

It happened because Joseph tried to do the right thing. Perhaps he got busy helping older people with their loads, maybe he was repairing a cart or two, or tending other people's kids. He probably felt he should check on Jesus, but figured Jesus was 12, and 12-year-olds need a little space. Joseph probably thought Jesus was with his friends and didn't want to be a butt-inski dad - one of those guys who shows up when his son is with his friends and makes the kid want to crawl in a hole.

Whatever the reason, Joseph flips a U-turn and high-tails it back to Jerusalem - a city of thousands - to search for one small, lost boy.

I can see Joseph shaking his head.

I can see Mary shaking her head.

But, of course, it all works.

By now Joseph was probably beginning to believe the proverb that says a fool has a lot more going for him in the eyes of God than a know-it-all (Proverbs 26:12).

Good, gray, upright, stoic, right-brained Joseph was one of the first saints recognized by the CatholicChurch: St. Joseph, Saint Josef . . . San Jose. Being a carpenter, he was made the patron saint of workers.

But if I were Catholic, I'd like to think he was the patron saint for people like me: well-intentioned, muddled fathers who try to do the right thing, court diaster but somehow know it's all going to work out fine in the end.