I’ve often felt bad for St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus. He literally had the perfect family. His wife was the woman God chose from every woman who has ever lived, preparing her from the very moment of her conception for her very important mission. Very few people in the story of our salvation play as important a role as she did (and still does in our world.) In her whole lifetime, Mary never sinned. So if you look at the Holy Family, gathered around the table, you have Jesus, the Word of God incarnate; Mary, the holy Mother of God; and Joseph. Imagine the conversation around the dinner table when someone had gone through the house in muddy shoes, or if a cookie was missing from the jar: only one could have done it, the one who was neither God nor the perfect woman He had chosen to be His mother. From that perspective, it makes Joseph seem almost trivial… but nothing could be further from the truth.
In Scripture, you only find Joseph in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel and the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Not a word of Joseph’s is written in these chapters, but we can learn a great deal from what he does:
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. (Matthew 1:18-24)
This is the first of three occasions in Matthew’s Gospel that God speaks to Joseph in a dream. Each time (Matthew 1:20-24, 2:13-14, & 2:19-21), Joseph does what is asked of him. Three of Joseph’s best qualities are seen here:
1. Joseph is a man of prayer. Think about it… if God appeared in a dream, how would you distinguish what He had to say from the other random, miscellaneous, and often confusing things that happen in our dreams? Joseph could distinguish God’s voice from all the rest because He knew God’s voice. The only way Joseph could know God’s voice was that he paid attention to it, observing the Jewish law set out for him, and likely through a humble, active, daily prayer life. As the foster father of Jesus, he likely took time to teach this discipline of prayer- a discipline Jesus would maintain throughout His ministry, taking specific moments throughout the Gospels to go up to a mountain, away to a deserted place, and in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
2. Joseph trusts God. By trade, we know Joseph was a carpenter. As a tradesman, Joseph would have had the skills of a carpenter, but also a clientele, a workshop, and a business through which he supported his family. I love to imagine Joseph and Jesus working side by side in the toolshop, as he shares this trade with his son. There’s a beautiful Christmas song about Mary and Joseph that talks about how Jesus, as a good Jewish son, would have been learning the trade of carpentry from Joseph… growing up with His hands in wood (a foreshadowing, as He would also die with His hands in wood.) Each time God calls Joseph to drop everything and move – leaving Israel for Egypt when the danger to his son is imminent, and then returning once danger had passed, chances are he left this business behind as well. God asks him to leave everything, and in what is truly a beautiful faith, Joseph lives “Thy Will be done” – and goes. God takes care of their family.
3. Joseph puts his family ahead of himself. Every recorded action of Joseph in the scriptures is about Jesus and Mary. He refuses to excercise his right according to the law of Moses, which, upon finding out that his bride to be was pregnant, meant he could have had her condemned and then stoned to death. Alth0ugh he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t feel worthy to be part of so great a plan, he refuses to expose Mary to public shame. As I mentioned before, he drops everything and moves twice to go where God asks him to take the family. He takes Mary to Bethlehem for the census, and searches high and wide for a place for her to sleep on that first Christmas night. It is he who is at Mary’s side as she delivers the most precious infant… as the shepherds and angels come to adore… and eventually as the Magi bring the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrhh. He takes Jesus to the temple on two recorded occasions: to present Him and dedicate Him to God, and then on the occasion when Jesus gets lost. There is no record of Joseph going for a beer with his buddies, having a mid-life crisis, losing his temper, taking off to go hunting or fishing, or putting his own ambitions for the carpentry business ahead of Jesus and Mary’s needs.
If you haven’t guessed it, I consider St. Joseph to be an incredible man. When we see statues or photos of him, the two things you often see in his hands (other than the Christ child) are a lily and a tool for carpentry. You can see both in the icon at the top of the page. The tools should be obvious based on what I’ve already written: Joseph worked, and worked hard, demonstrating the dignity and dedication each of us should put into whatever work God has called us to. A lily is a flower that represents purity- and it is purity that God entrusted to Joseph in the persons of Mary and Jesus. The Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin not only until the birth of Jesus, but throughout her life. She was the spouse of the Holy Spirit first and foremost, the Ark of the New Covenant, and Joseph respected that. (As a side note, if you touched the original ark, you died. Check out 2 Samuel 6, and hear about what happened to Uzzah.) Joseph loved Mary, loved Jesus, and did all he could to care for them. While some traditions talk about Joseph being an old man (and he is sometimes painted or sculpted that way), I prefer to think of Joseph as a young man. He was a young man who had dreams of building a succesful carpentry business, of raising a family with his beautiful bride to be… yet, all these dreams took a backseat to the faith, hope, and love he had in God. And God chose Joseph not simply because He needed someone else to make up the story- but because Joseph truly was a man worthy to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors (he is, after all, a descendant of King David, the man after God’s own heart.)
Let us honor this man whose life of prayer, trust in God, and love for his family are meant to be examples to all of us, especially those of us who have families God which God has called us to watch over.
St. Joseph, pray for us.