Growing up I could never get it straight as to which was the true date of the feast of St. Joseph, March 18 or 19. The feast is March 19, but the reason for my confusion was that my grandfather, who was named Joseph, had his birthday on March 18. It was always a dual celebration of his birthday and his feast day, so I grew up constantly confusing the two dates. In my family there are Josephs going back many generations, (including my father), so one would think that with all those men named Joseph in the family I would at least be able to differentiate between my grandfather's birthday and the feast day of so wonderful a saint. Just like St. Joseph: always in the shadows and a bit mysterious!
One might wonder why I am writing about St. Joseph when his feast day is long past. I have been reflecting on St. Joseph because Pope Francis has added his name to the Eucharistic Prayer, which I think is fantastic. It is about time this great saint is remembered a bit more publicly. We hear so little about him in the Gospels, yet he had one of the most difficult roles in all of history. I have a deep devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, so do not get me wrong, but I think Joseph had the more difficult role. I say this because Joseph had to take the more hidden role, and because he had to be the earthly father to one who was not his biological son, but rather, his God. Unlike Mary, he was not born without the stain of sin. Therefore he had to rely on personal holiness and absolute trust in God in order to fulfill his role as a father to Jesus. And unlike Mary, he is shrouded in the shadow of obscurity since we know so little about him.
There are all sorts of theories about Joseph, but what we know is that he was definitely older than Mary. That was not uncommon in those days. A husband was to have a firm foundation beneath him so that he could support a wife and children. This means he had to establish himself with a trade. A woman was of age for marriage as soon as she could bear children. Therefore the women were usually significantly younger than their husbands. One theory says Joseph was married before and had other children. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate this. Some artists depict Joseph as elderly in comparison to a child bride. That is also nonsense. That he was older is true, but he was not like a grandparent to Jesus. By the standards of their day, he was mature in comparison to Mary who had just left girlhood behind when they were betrothed.
More is revealed about Joseph in Matthew's infancy narrative than in Luke. (He is never mentioned in Mark or in John.) In Matthew, we learn that Joseph was betrothed to Mary when he discovered she was pregnant. He must have loved her because he wanted to divorce her quietly so as not to endanger her life. He knew that she could be subject to death since she was pregnant by one other than him. He then heard from an angel that Mary was indeed pregnant, not with another man's child, but with the Son of God. For Joseph to have had trust in the angel's revelation to him tells us that he was a man of deep faith. He was also very obedient to God, because he followed every message from God without question or hesitation.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem for the census and it was he who prepared the place of Jesus’ birth in the stable. There is no mention of anyone other than Joseph being at the birth, so he must have been the midwife to Mary. It is unheard of that a man would perform such a duty, but without anyone else there, it had to be none other than this holy man who tenderly attended to his young wife and to the Son of God. While Mary carried Jesus for nine months, it may have been Joseph who first saw the Son of God incarnate. I think that he really deserved that honor, given that he did so much with so little attention given him thereafter.
Joseph was at Mary's side when the Magi and shepherds arrived. He was the one who the angel told to take Mary and Jesus out of Judea. It was he who guided and protected them on their journey to Egypt and who understood when it was time to return home to Nazareth. He provided for his family and he was the one who taught Jesus his own trade of carpentry. The last glimpse we get of Joseph is in Luke 2 when they went to Jerusalem for their yearly duty. Jesus was “lost" (to them) for a few days, staying behind while His parents departed thinking He was in the caravan. No doubt Joseph and Mary were distraught but simultaneously full of faith that they would find Jesus unharmed. They knew who Jesus was and that it was not yet time for Him to be in ministry. While it is Mary who spoke in that passage, she had to speak for Joseph as well, reminding Jesus that it was not yet time. It says that Jesus obeyed them both and returned home to learn more from both His parents.
Joseph then disappears from the narrative and so he becomes hidden once again. We can conjecture that Joseph died at some point in the years when Jesus was between the ages of 12 and 30 since Mary was seen as a widow when Jesus began His public ministry. But we do not know exactly when Joseph died or even why he died; we have no clue as to any of the details. Joseph had fulfilled his role and so it was time for him to let go and to let Jesus protect His mother and fulfill His role of bringing salvation into the world.
Mary had to have a husband, but Joseph was not there merely for God's convenience. Joseph was there to be a role model of goodness to his Son, and He was there to help Jesus understand His true Father, God. It must have taken extraordinary holiness to raise the Son of God. Joseph had the humblest role in all of history; therefore, he had to be a model of humility for his Son. While Jesus and Mary rested in his shadow during his life, he had to be in the shadows of history since it is Jesus who was far more important. And he seems content to be in the shadow of his beloved Mary, because she was the mother of Jesus, whereas he was an adoptive father. Mostly, Joseph was in the shadow of the Father, who taught him how to be the best father Jesus could have on earth. Therefore Joseph must have been a man of great prayer and faith. I can think of no one I would rather turn to when I need help in these areas than Joseph.
Joseph should not be an afterthought for any of us. From him we can learn true humility. We can learn to be obedient when we do not understand what God seems to be asking of us. We can learn to be more other-centered. Joseph knew it was never about the honor of being the one chosen to be the foster father of Jesus. On the contrary, he had the grace to quietly fulfill his part: to adore his son, the Son of God, while being attentive to the boundaries of his role. While St. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, Joseph prepared Jesus for the way. He helped prepare Jesus to save the world!
Let us turn to St. Joseph as a role model for us in prayer and in acceptance of that which is difficult. Let us learn from him that the Father is never far from us when we have needs. Let us learn from him how to be humble and attentive towards those whom we love and care for. Let us learn how to be in the shadow of the Father, in the protection of the Spirit, and the love of the Son.
May we have a growing relationship with St. Joseph who remains with us, though hidden! May we turn to St. Joseph when we need help with our faith or trust in God, asking him to intercede for us! May we let St. Joseph be a patron of our families, leading us by example in love and unity! May we let St. Joseph be our model, leading us into the Shadow of the Father, who is our Father, too! And may St. Joseph lead us ever closer to His Son, and into His Heart, which beats in love for us all forever. Peace!
The icon at the beginning of the post is St. Joseph Shadow of the Father by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=170.
The photo is of an olivewood sculpture I have which depicts the Flight Into Egypt.
The last icon is one of my favorite icons of all: San Jose Sombra del Padre, also by Rev. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=368
Heart Speaks to Heart