Contemplating a Nativity scene, we behold a divine Infant, an immaculately conceived Mother, and a foster father who somehow remains the most obscure of the three figures. Father Feeney, who loved Saint Joseph very much, made this observation about him: “Joseph did not live a hidden life for the sake of never being known to us. Joseph lived a hidden life for the sake of being discovered by us, through simple insight and innocent love.”
Especially since the time of Saint Teresa of Avila, many saints have delighted their souls in holy “discovery” of both Saint Joseph’s greatness and his intercessory power. In this Christmas letter, I would like to try to discover some of the glories of this man Jesus called “Father.” Specifically, I wish to consider him as a chosen instrument for God’s Providence. Traditionally, we make an appeal for donations every Christmas — counting on God’s Providence working through you. As I renew this custom, I turn to the holy Patriarch of Nazareth, to contemplate how God provided through him.
The manifold parallels between Joseph of the Old Testament, and Joseph of the New Testament have been enumerated by many Catholic authors. Jacob’s son provided grain for the hungry during a famine. Mary’s husband, too, was a provider. He provided for the Holy Family and, in so doing, provided the Bread of Life for us all. Both were “dreamers”: Jacob’s son was graced with mystical dreams and the ability to interpret them, while Mary’s husband was given angelic messages in dreams. Both had fathers named Jacob; both were models of chastity; both made providential sojourns to Egypt. Leaving aside all the other parallels, what we want to emphasize is something the Old Testament type clearly uncovers: Saint Joseph as a leader and provider, one carefully chosen by God’s special providence for the salvation of mankind.
Studying the passages of the Gospels where we read about Saint Joseph, we see him protecting and providing for the Holy Family, the nascent Church. It is logical, therefore, that the protector of Jesus and Mary would be named by Blessed Pope Pius IX to be “Patron and Protector of the Universal Church.” As he guarded, defended, and protected the Head, so does he guard, defend, and protect the Body, which is the Church.
But who was this Joseph? Abstracting from his divine election, was Saint Joseph simply an ordinary Jew of his day? The answer is absolutely not. Though neither crowned nor anointed, he was royalty, for he was the scion of a thousand-year-old royal house. That house — the House of David — faded into obscurity not long after the Babylonian exile, but it did not disappear. All the lines were jealously guarded by a careful record-keeping that would allow the monarchy to be restored. After all, the Messias was to be of that house, and there must be some way to verify His lineage. Himself of the blood royal, it was not Joseph’s part to rule, but, in the fullness of time, to provide for the “Return of the King.” So, remaining in the obscurity cast over his dynasty, Saint Joseph labored to feed, house, and protect Him of whom it was said “. . .the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever” (Lk. 1:32).
How is it that such an important royal line faded into obscurity? The answer lies in the history of the Babylonian capivity (c. 600 B.C.).
The last King of Juda was a wicked man named Sedecias, of whom Scripture says, “he did evil before the Lord” (4 Kings 24:19). Jeremias the prophet admonished him to repent, but to no effect. Imprudently, Sedecias formed an alliance with the Egyptians against the Babylonians. Jeremias prophesied defeat, and warned Sedecias that he would be taken captive into Babylon, but would not see Babylon. This apparently self-contradictory prophecy was fulfilled when the Babylonians murdered Sedecias’ children in front of him, then blinded him (so that his sons’ deaths would be the last things he saw), and took him into captivity, where he finished out his miserable existence in bondage.
The wretched Sedecias had a nephew named Salathiel, whose son, Zorobabel, led the people to rebuild the Temple after the return from the seventy-year Babylonian captivity. Had the House of Juda been restored to the throne at that time, Zorobabel would have ruled. But the monarchy was not restored then, for the true “restoration,” which the Jews had long awaited, would come only with Christ the King. These names (Salathiel and Zorobabel), which we meet in certain historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament, also come to us in St. Matthew’s genealogy of Our Lord — Christ’s descent from Saint Joseph’s side. Saint Luke gives us Our Lord’s genealogy through Our Lady’s line, whereby Jesus inherited David’s royal blood; but Saint Matthew provides us with Saint Joseph’s line, whereby Jesus inherited David’s royal title as King of Juda.
Orthodox Jews believe that the Roman occupation of the Holy Land was a punishment for the usurpation of the Davidic throne by the Hasmoneans, a pseudo-royal dynasty descended from the Maccabees. Being Levites, and not of David’s line, they had no business on the throne. When the Romans came to Palestine, they had been invited there to settle a dispute between two claimants to the Hasmonean throne. But they overstayed their welcome. Thus it came to pass that the Holy Land was under Roman rule when Jesus was born, and Herod, the “King of the Jews” who feared the news of the Magi, was no Jew at all, but a descendant of Esau. He bought his “kingship” from the Romans.
All of these great events of history helped to make Saint Joseph’s life the “hidden” one that we have to “discover” by meditation on the Gospels. And what do we find there? Joseph’s “trouble” over Mary’s being found with child, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt, the losing and subsequent finding in the Temple. All these are mysteries that help us discover Saint Joseph’s virtues, leadership, and protection.
Space will force me to make brief considerations on only two of these mysteries.
The first is the flight into Egypt. During this mystery the Holy Family had to undertake one of many of their recorded journeys, and this the most dangerous of all. It would have taken them about a week to make the trip, which was over some truly “bad road.” The Greek biographer, Plutarch, tells us that, in 55 B.C., the same crossing was made by the Roman officers of Gabinus, who feared the trip more than the war that awaited them in Egypt. This was a real desert, complete with shifting sands and brutal heat. The only food and water they would have had was what they could carry. Once in Egypt, the Holy Family was out of danger from Herod, but they had to endure two years in the pagan land that was the very symbol of evil in the Old Testament.
Second is the losing and subsequent finding in the Temple. Here, Saint Joseph is tormented by Jesus’ disappearance, for he did all he could to care for the Boy. But God’s will concealed Jesus from him. I cannot help thinking that when Jesus was found, the doctors of the law, who had access to the genealogical records preserved in the temple, were doubly confounded when they saw Saint Joseph. Not only was Jesus unsurpassingly wise, but He was the son of this man, the true heir to the throne of David. The scribes’ wonderment must have increased exponentially when, in response to Mary’s words about “. . . your father [Joseph] and I. . . ,” they heard the Boy refer to being about his Heavenly Father’s business (or “in my Father’s house” as some translations have it). This wise young Visitor was both David’s heir and David’s Lord.
When we picture Mary at the foot of the Cross, we see her there with John, not Joseph. Why? God had appointed Saint Joseph the protector of the Holy Family. He had also appointed His Son to die for the salvation of man. In a sense, these two vocations were at variance. Saint Joseph had fulfilled his job perfectly, sinlessly. But it was necessary for God the Father to bring him to Abraham’s bosom to announce the good news there, else, Joseph would have had to protect Jesus from the Jews and Romans, and that could not be. Thus, with Jesus and Mary at his side, the Protector and Provider for the Holy Family became also the patron of a holy death.
But Saint Joseph did have a part to play in the Passion. As Jesus’ father, he had the great duty of forming the human virtues of the Son of God. Radical as it sounds, this is theologically correct given what we know of Our Lord’s human knowledge — the acquired knowledge. Saint Paul says in Hebrews that Jesus “. . . learned obedience through the things he suffered.” Paul’s disciple, Saint Luke, tells us that after Jesus was found in the temple, He “. . . advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men.” Saint Joseph was His teacher. Our Lord’s practice of manly virtue was built upon the example of this hard-working carpenter.
Here I am at the end of this letter and I have not written about the Mystery of the Nativity and how Saint Joseph was the “Hero of Christmas.” I leave it to you, dear reader — to your “simple insight and innocent love” — to discover this for yourself. May Saint Joseph and his Holy Spouse protect and provide for you and your families this Christmas.