(Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24) No story of the Blessed Virgin Mary would be complete without taking time to reflect on the life of her husband, St. Joseph. This is not an easy task, for we know very little about him. We know that he was the son of Jacob and a member of the House of David. But we are not certain when or where Joseph was born, or when he died; we don’t even know where he is buried.
It may truly be said of Joseph that his actions speak louder than his words, for nothing that he said has ever been recorded in the Gospels. He appears to have been little more than a simple carpenter from Nazareth, a family man who made his living by the work of his hands. It’s obvious that he wasn’t rich, for he was only able to offer a humble sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves (or two young pigeons) when the time came to present Jesus to the Lord in the Temple. (cf. Lk 2:22-24) If Joseph had been well-to-do, he would have brought a lamb. There does not appear to be anything special about him at all. Yet in God’s eyes, Joseph must have been quite extraordinary, for God chose him to be the protector and defender of the two most precious people in the world: Mary, Our Blessed Mother and Jesus, Our Lord.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth begins with Mary’s betrothal to Joseph. According to Jewish law at that time, betrothal established a legal bond between couples. Mary could be called Joseph’s wife, even though they were not yet living together. Once the agreement was made, custom dictated that Mary continue to live in her parents’ home under the authority of her father, St. Joachim. After a year had passed, Joseph would take her into his home, thereby sealing the marriage.”1
We can only imagine how confused Joseph must have felt when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. Not only did this news destroy all his dreams of their future life together, but he also knew that Mary’s life was in danger. Under Jewish law, if a man committed adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be put to death. (cf. Lev 20:10) Joseph knew that Mary could be stoned. His choice was clear: he could bring Mary before the court, or he could issue her with a private writ of divorce.2
Now a man who was impulsive, angry, and vindictive might have immediately tried to find out who the ‘father’ was so he could punish him; such a man might have given way to an emotional or physical outburst guaranteed to bring down the full force of the law. Another man – perhaps insecure or lacking in maturity – might have sought the counsel of others, relying on their advice to help him decide Mary’s future. But Joseph was none of these things. Although he must have been deeply hurt by the news of Mary’s pregnancy – by what must have seemed undeniable proof of her infidelity – Joseph loved her deeply and unconditionally. He must have been very thoughtful, discreet, and prudent, for even though he resolved to send Mary away quietly, he didn’t act right away. Joseph continued to consider the best course of action. He must have been a man of great courage and strength of character to be so determined to shield Mary from public shame and harm. This wasn’t someone who was worried about his ‘image’ or how things might ‘look’; he gave no thought to himself at all. Joseph was concerned and compassionate towards Mary, and his desire to protect her must have been complicated by the fact that Nazareth was a small town where it would have been difficult to conceal anything.
Yet Joseph was a man of great faith, one who joyfully sought to do the will of God at all times. We know this because Scripture tells us that he was ‘righteous’ and ‘just’ – a description that implies a depth of character that goes beyond modern definitions of these words. Psalm 1 tells us that “A just man … is one who maintains living contact with the word of God, who ‘delights in the law of the Lord’ (Ps 1:2). He is like a tree, planted beside the flowing waters constantly bringing forth fruit. The flowing waters, from which he draws nourishment, naturally refer to the living word of God, into which he sinks the roots of his being. God’s will is not a law imposed on him from without, it is ‘joy.’ For him the law is simply Gospel, good news, because he reads it with a personal, loving openness to God and in this way learns to understand and live it from deep within.”3
It is to this man that the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21). Only a man of great interior depth and substance – a man who was righteous and just – could believe the words of an angel. Joseph did not question what he had been told in the dream; he didn’t wonder if it was just a figment of his own imagination. Instead, he immediately set aside all of his own doubts and fears about Mary and responded to God’s command with complete and joyful obedience. In faith, he took Mary as his wife and named the baby, “Jesus.” No questions. No protests. Just faith.
Why did God pick Joseph? Certainly not because he was important, handsome, rich, or famous – for he was none of these things. God picked Joseph because he was a man of faith, a man who He knew would say “yes” to His invitation. God knew that Joseph was humble, a man with a rich interior life. He knew that Joseph would rely on God to meet all of the challenges ahead and not fall into the trap of relying on himself. There was no doubt in His mind that Joseph was the man who could get the job done, for “with God all things are possible”(Mt 19:26).
When we really think about it, what Joseph was asked to do is what is required of any father in a family. God entrusts the welfare of all wives and children to husbands and fathers, counting on them to love, protect, and defend them. The fact that Joseph is a great saint – despite the ‘ordinariness’ of his life – gives us all hope that we, too, can become saints simply by fulfilling the duties of our ordinary, everyday lives. All we have to do is say, “Yes,” and God will take care of the rest.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (New York: Random House, 2012), 38
2 Ibid., 39.
3 Ibid., 39-40.