The Bible tells us little about St. Joseph, but he plays a key role in salvation history. Being the protector of the blessed Mother and of Jesus was a heavy responsibility, compared to which the weighty office of the Roman Emperor pales. Once he married Mary, he was permanently living in the Holy of Holies into which the High Priest only dared go once a year after much prayer and fasting. For Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant, carrying God in her womb; and Jesus only left home to start his public ministry after Joseph had died.
Joseph, a just man
What little the Bible says about St. Joseph brims over with meaning; he is described as a just man (Mt 1: 19). Our modern, secular mindset makes us think at best that he was upright and law-abiding. If we think in religious terms, we might take him to be following scrupulously the laws of the Old Covenant. But the Pharisees, if nothing else, have made it clear to us that obeying the law without love leads to injustice. Or to put it paradoxically, justice alone is never just.
Joseph’s justice is fueled by caritas, shines forth through generosity and expresses itself with exquisite delicacy, treading lightly where love requires it. Did he truly believe at first that Mary had betrayed him, carrying the child of another? Some mystics and spiritual writers say that in reality he realized that something divine was happening here, that he needed to step aside to make room for God; after all, Scriptures had announced that the virgin would carry a child (Is 7: 14). In either case, he acted with great discretion, humility and prudence.
The blessed Mother bestows a certain sweetness on those who express a particular love for her; Marian priests stand out that way. Whatever holiness Joseph possessed before meeting the Virgin Mary (for how else would he have been found worthy to become the guardian of the Holy Family) must have been finetuned to a remarkable degree through her constant presence. And to have Jesus – God Himself – in his house, was like being in Heaven though they still lived in a fallen world filled with hardships and sufferings.
Joseph was not spared his share. Having to travel with Mary who was about to give birth, not finding a decent place for them to stay, being obliged to make-do with a poor stable in the cold winter must have put him to the test. Whatever human comfort he could have provided for them in Nazareth was denied in Bethlehem – asking him to be stripped even of his right desire to provide adequately for them. But then the child itself, the angels, shepherds and magi as well as Simeon in the temple gave him such joy, making up for all the previous toil and worry – though not for long. Early on the world turned against its savior and Joseph had to escape with his family to Egypt, leading the life of a refugee without the assistance of friends and wider family.
The last trial of Joseph mentioned in the gospel is the search for the twelve-year old Jesus for three days before finding him again in the temple. This anguished search with Mary would give him a taste of what she would be going through later between the Passion and the Resurrection. But he would no longer be able to assist her during that trial, something that surely must have weighed on him as he lay dying. Without any mention in Holy Script, Joseph dies before Jesus starts His public ministry; like Moses, he passes into eternity before entering the Holy Land, before seeing Christ’s announcement of the kingdom. Together with the other just people in the underworld, he has to await the redemption of Christ, who comes to liberate them after His salvific death.
Many things must have puzzled Joseph, but, like Mary, he must have kept them in his heart. He stands discreetly in the background, though he is much invoked for a holy death (and what can be more important than that?) and when families need a house or a job; he is also the patron-saint of carpenters, working people, the poor, fathers, families and the Universal Church. Like Mary, he is good at untying knots when we ask him for help.
Let us pray: St. Joseph, with the help of your beloved spouse, please untie the knots in our lives that make our family-life difficult and grant us the grace of a holy death.