“All is calm.” These words are found in one of the season’s most famous Christmas songs, “Silent Night.” But what went on in the background during the night of Jesus’ birth was anything but peaceful. No friends or family were present for Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph were turned away from inn after inn, and Herod was scheming to kill the child that Mary just gave birth to.
Yet the night remains holy because it is the beginning of the life of the Holy Family: a mother who is “most blessed among women,” a father who is strong both in stature and in spirit, and the Christ Child. But one member is often overlooked: Joseph.
A holy hiddenness
I think it can be tempting to think of Joseph as present to Jesus’ life but maybe not as an active participant. After all, unlike his wife and son, he was not conceived without sin, and he died before Jesus did, taking him out of the Scripture narrative rather early. Joseph is often overlooked because of his holy hiddenness, including the fact that there are no words recorded from him in the Bible.
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But we read that he was a righteous man. He was unwilling to expose Mary to shame, so he planned to divorce her “quietly.” However, his heart was open to persuasion, and when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream, he knew that he had to offer his own surrender to God’s plan, just as Mary did.
Sheltered and protected
I love this line in Matthew’s Gospel: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (1:24). There is so much protection and security in these words. He had newfound confidence in God’s will and did not procrastinate to fulfill it. He already had his home established, and he was bringing Mary into it, under the shelter of his roof and in the protection of his arms.
He brought her under his threshold with great masculinity and great self-control. He accepted his vocation to love, honor and care for Mary, and he respected her call to give herself entirely to God. He was loyal to her. As author Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, the theme of Joseph and Mary’s relationship was the other’s salvation; each of their goals was “Jesus for the other.”
Joseph gave his total surrender and fiat, just as Mary did when she received Jesus into her womb. In the words of Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet: “It is only an extreme simplicity that can render the heart obedient and accommodating … if his intentions had been less honorable, if he had belonged only partly to God, he would not have totally surrendered himself … but his heart, which sought God in total simplicity, knowing nothing else but complete unity with him, had absolutely no difficulty in recognizing that the incorruptible virtue of his holy spouse deserved the testimony of heaven.”
In Mary Amore’s devotional, “Advent and Christmas with Saint Joseph,” she puts the focus on Joseph’s attributes: faithfulness, obedience, tenderness, courage, love and protection. She writes: “Wherever their journey took them in life, Joseph kept his holy family safe from harm. The life of Joseph as husband and father shows how important faithfulness is in relationships.” I love this. Joseph wasn’t just faithful in his initial yes to Mary, unwilling to expose her to shame, but he was also faithful as a husband and a father. He didn’t give God his laundry list of questions. Instead, he boldly submitted and entrusted his life to God, trusting that, in turn, God would take care of him and his family.
Passing on tradition
Joseph not only humbly served his family by providing for them through his trade as a craftsman, but he also passed on a solid education to his son through the practice of their Jewish faith.
After Joseph and his wife presented Jesus in the temple, they returned to their hometown of Nazareth where “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Lk 2:40), while also going to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the feast of Passover.
God the Father desired that his Son be formed with the love of a father’s heart, and that is what Joseph was to Jesus — a father who exemplified virtue through the laying down of his life as husband to Mary, and by being a witness to Jesus of hard work, and a life of prayer and selfless love.