It is, of course, proper during the Christmas season to focus our attention on the Christ child. Most of the well-known Christmas carols have Jesus as the subject, although a few give honor to the Blessed Mother. But what is rare is any mention of Joseph. We know that he played an indispensable role in the birth and early life of Jesus, but he seems to disappear from our vision like a statue of him in a nativity scene that is inexplicably placed behind the ox.
How unfortunate this is, for Joseph is a remarkable figure, a man of such faith and strength that he ought to be a role model for every man on earth. Consider his story.
We see him first as Mary’s betrothed husband. In those days, a man would arrange a marital covenant with his spouse, but months would pass before they actually lived together. It was also expected that a man would provide a home for his bride. As the story begins, we can assume that Joseph already had such a place and that Mary would soon join him there.
It is not hard to imagine his excitement as he awaits his bride. He undoubtedly looks forward to a long life with Mary and many children. But that dream is shattered.
When he learns that Mary is pregnant, he knows the child is not his. Like any Jewish man, he has the right to divorce her. But he is a just man and has no desire to shame her. Instead, he decides to end the marriage quietly. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future there will be another woman in his life.
But in a dream, an angel informs him that Mary has not been unfaithful to him. Instead, she is pregnant through the work of the Holy Spirit. He should have no fear continuing to be Mary’s husband. She will bear a son who will be called Jesus, and he will save the world from sin.
We should not gloss over the decision that Joseph makes. Because he chooses to obey the angel, he forfeits whatever original plans he had for his life, including children. Mary is a chosen instrument of God, too pure for sexual relations. Joseph now becomes more than Mary’s husband; he is the sole provider and protector for her and her child. His position as a foster-father will be confirmed when he officially names the child.
After the birth of Jesus, an angel warns Joseph to escape Herod’s wrath and flee to Egypt. Just like that? Leave his home, his business, his friends and family? Would not most men rebel? And yet he obeys again and leaves immediately under the cover of darkness.
It is uncertain how long they were in Egypt. There were a handful of Jewish communities in Egypt, and it is likely that they settled in one of them. Since Joseph was a carpenter, he undoubtedly found work. Perhaps they settled into a comfortable routine in their new home. Now they could simply enjoy life and watch their child grow.
But once again an angel appears in a dream to inform Joseph that Herod is dead, and it is safe to return to Judea. The angel does not provide an option for Joseph; it is a command: “Rise, take the child and his mother . . .” Joseph, ever righteous, packs up whatever they can carry and returns to their home.
However, after their return, they learn that Herod’s son is now in command there. Joseph, ever the protector, is fearful for Jesus and Mary. Perhaps he prays for guidance, and, for the fourth time, an angel appears in a dream and directs him to move the family to Nazareth.
The Gospels tell us nothing about Joseph after this event until he and Mary find the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple instructing the elders. Mary asks Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” He replies, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?”
Perhaps it is at this point that Joseph knows that his role as protector will soon come to an end, for he is never mentioned again in the Gospels. We know that he died before the crucifixion, for had he been still alive, Jesus would not have placed Mary under the care of John.
John the Baptist, after hearing that many of his disciples had become followers of Jesus, announced that “He must increase, while I decrease.” Was this not the same driving motivation in Joseph’s life? From the moment of the first angelic visitation, all his personal desires and goals were sublimated to the needs of Mary and Jesus. No task was too hard, no sacrifice too great. Protect, provide, love. These were the actions that made Joseph a saint.
With the continuing destruction of the family in America today, it is imperative to raise boys to be holy husbands and fathers. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Joseph is the template. Parents can give their boys no greater gift than to teach them to protect, provide, and love. If all Catholic parents did that, the effects on the Church and society would be earth-shaking. The crisis is real; the time to act is now.