I’ve written elsewhere about Jesus as “son of the carpenter” (Mt. 13:55). This short statement from the gospel can be understood in terms of Christ’s unique filial relationship to both God the Heavenly Father, and divine architect of the universe; and St Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, the human provider and protector of Jesus during his upbringing; in a word, Joseph is the patron of the holy family. And according to Christian tradition, St. Joseph is known as the “Shadow of the Eternal Father.”
It should therefore not be surprising that Joseph remains somewhat shrouded from the vision of profane and impious men, remaining somewhat beyond their ken and/or appreciation. Like all holy things (much more persons), there is an illusive quality to them. They desire/require the good faith and honest effort from the pious seeker to find connection and communion with them. In this way they are most like God. “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Prov. 8:17). “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28).
Now, something of this hidden and holy quality of God the Father, was obviously given to St Joseph, as the shadow of the Eternal Father, the husband of the Ever-Virgin Mary, and the father of eternal Son of God. This is sometimes depicted in certain nativity paintings, where Joseph remains out of the limelight, somewhat obscured; you have to look for him; it’s as if he almost wants to not be noticed. One might even be left with the impression that the artist didn’t know what to do with Joseph; or that he is out of place in the nativity scene. This is of course, impossible; And we must dig deeper to understand what is going on. And the parallel between Joseph and God the Father should not be missed. God is our Father, who provides for us; and protects us; while remaining (completely) out of sight.
As it is St Joseph offers a sacred example of fatherhood in Christian revelation and tradition (paralleling the Virgin’s exemplary Motherhood). Indeed, Joseph’s providential protection of Mary and Jesus at once offers a clear lens into the divine mystery of fatherhood and husbandry. For he was uniquely chosen for this unparalleled vocation, with its unimaginable, privilege, honor and responsibility. He also fulfilled his ministry in exemplary sanctity and unto completion.
Not only was Joseph a holy man who could commune closely with God, receiving many messages from angels during the night; He was also an active man, a carpenter, whose holiness permeated all his physical labors. From defending the Virgin’s reputation when she was unexpectedly with child; to piloting his pregnant wife ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem; from preparing a make-shift birthing-inn out of a livestock barn; from hosting the three Magi from the Orient in a humble home; from fleeing by night into Egypt: Saint Joseph is the most sublime example of a husband and father. He cherished both the inner life of contemplation all-the-while working actively to prepare for, provide for, and protect his wife and child. Can any father’s fears for his wife and children compare to the concern that Joseph would have experienced, bearing the most holy Virgin and the Son of God through a sinful world, full of murder and all kinds of perversion?
Or can any other father compare his concern over his family’s physical well-being with Joseph’s concern for the Queen of heaven and her royal son of God? For here was both a prince and a pauper. Yet for all of this, nothing was lacking in Joseph’s fatherly provision.
And it must be remembered that both Mary and Joseph were from the Royal bloodline of David, and were therefore both prince and princess according to ancient Israelite tradition. Joseph was a prince of the tribe of Judah, and Mary was a daughter of both kings and priests, according to the lineages recorded in the Gospels.
But this holy couple show us royalty in a new hue; they are simultaneously royal and lowly. Yet somehow their humility detracts nothing from their regality, but rather increases it all the more. For Christ would have had it no other way. God’s ways are not necessarily our ways (Dt 29:29). “Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (Mt 11:8). But “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mat 8:20).
For we all know of Mary’s exaltation as queen of heaven, “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim” (Byzantine chant); But we are less aware of Joseph’s parallel honor, as royal, and patronal protector of the universal Church. But these words can be heard in the Church:
God, King of kings, and Governor of the ages,
He at whose word the powers of hell do tremble,
He whom the adoring heavens ever worship
Called thee protector.
O Joseph, spouse so pure of that immortal bride
Whose glory shines secure, midst virgins glorified:
How now on high thy name is ever magnified
Let all of Christendom proclaim
As patron and protector of the Universal Church, Joseph is no less a royal prince and patriarch, and father of Christ the king. And this is depicted all throughout Catholic sacred art: royal Joseph, bearing the Christ-child in his arms.
And so we can go from poor pilgrim, residing in a manger, to royal court of heaven, resplendent with divine glory, all in one step. This is the mystery of holiness which St Joseph understood by experience. This was the story of the Nativity. For in the midst of the darkness surrounding Bethlehem, and the devilish Herod’s assassins creeping through the night, slaughtering baby boys, the star of David floods the the faces of the holy family; The gift of gold glistens from the hands of kings; frankincense fills the air, shrouding the sacred space of the divine child, as in a temple (thus surpassing the division between priest and king); myrrh gushing forth the scent of paradise; mankind has entered into heaven itself. This is the humility of Joseph, as royal prince; at once a carpenter and a king; Such is the exaltation of the holy family, both in poverty and in heaven. Such mysteries are only known through wonder, and stillness. This is the glory of the Nativity. O holy Night.
What Joseph did for Mary and Jesus, he did for the church; and indeed this fatherhood, therefore, carries down to us today. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the French Doctor of the Church, makes the connection to the Old Testament type of Joseph.
“Of old the Patriarch Joseph stored up food not only for himself but for all the people. (Gen. 42): Saint Joseph received the living bread come down from heaven and guarded it, both for himself and for the whole world.”
But this adoration of the Magi, and the Shepherds, and of Mary and Joseph is precisely the same adoration that we are called to at every liturgy, and especially during the Nativity. And it is worth remembering the special proximity of St Joseph, to both Mary and Jesus.
“Aside from the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph was the first and most perfect adorer of our Lord.” — St. Peter Julian Eymard
Of course, this should be a comfort to us, even as it was for Mary and Jesus; that none other than the holy father Joseph stands quietly through the night of our lives, looking at us as his adopted children; praying to God for us; directing us to be better husbands and fathers; wives and mothers; sons and daughters; and gently providing for our placement in the presence of Christ and the Virgin. For Joseph is already there, as always.
“O thou, whom no one has ever yet invoked in vain, thou, whose power with Our Lord and Our Lady is so great, that it has been truly said, “In Heaven, Joseph commands rather than supplicates,” tender father, intercede for me!”
"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis