By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
The main focus during the season of Christmastide is naturally on the newborn Christ, whose birth we are celebrating, and then in a secondary way on His Blessed Mother, our Lady, whose great faithfulness made the Incarnation possible. St. Joseph, though, tends to remain in the background. He is there certainly in the Christmas story, but he is overshadowed by the Child Jesus and the Blessed Virgin.
Yet, the Holy Family was in Bethlehem because Joseph, who was of the House of David, had to travel to Bethlehem, the City of David, along with Mary, in order to register for the census called by the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Without this pressing necessity, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth, and the prophecies would not have been fulfilled, particularly this prophecy from Micah, who lived about 700 years before Christ:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).
So it is fitting to also look at St. Joseph during this joyful time. This series of articles will look at the life and role of this great saint in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, and also at how devotion to him in the Church grew from very humble beginnings to become widespread amongst Catholics.
What we know of him in historical terms is found in the opening chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Gospel of St. Luke. There is other information that has come down to us via the apocryphal writings — that is, writings which were ultimately not accepted by the Church — which were in circulation during the early centuries. But while some of what they contain about him may be true, it is only in the Gospels that we have absolute certainty, since the Church has accepted only them as canonical.
And what is in the Gospels about him is so little! We would love to know more. But we do not even have any record of anything he said. St. Joseph played a very important role as the foster father of Jesus and the spouse of our Lady, but he did it quietly, remaining in the background.
As indicated above, Joseph was of the House of David, and the tribe of Judah, and from the Gospels we learn that he was born in Bethlehem, the City of David near Jerusalem. His genealogy, or family history, is given in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. At the time when he entered into his great role as head and protector of the Holy Family, he was living in Nazareth in Galilee, far to the north of Bethlehem. The reason for this move is uncertain, but perhaps it was due to the necessity of finding work there as a carpenter.
From what we know, it was at Nazareth that St. Joseph became betrothed to our Lady, and in all probability, his marriage to our Lady took place after the Annunciation to her by the Angel Gabriel, when he told her that, providing she gave her consent, she was to become the Mother of God.
It is from the apocryphal writings that the idea of Joseph being an old man originated, and they also give details of the story that he was chosen to be our Lady’s spouse in a miraculous way. But given the difficulties he had to endure in looking after Mary and Jesus, it is unlikely that he was very old, and it is more probable that he was in his 30s or perhaps his 40s when Jesus was born.
According to St. Augustine (354-430), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who have been regarded as amongst the foremost Catholic thinkers, although the marriage of our Lady and St. Joseph was a true marriage it was a chaste and virginal one.
The distress of St. Joseph on finding out that our Lady was with child, following the Annunciation of the birth of the Christ Child to her by the Angel Gabriel, was thus considerable, and his faith in her was undoubtedly put to the test.
From this we can already get an idea of Joseph’s holiness and greatness, in that his reaction was very different from what might have been expected. Instead of reacting angrily, to spare our Lady any embarrassment he resolved to send her away quietly. For this reason St. Matthew described him as a “just man.”
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: “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” (Matt. 1:20-21).
St. Joseph did not delay, but when he awoke he took steps to make Mary his wife, and then, some time later, when the baby was due, it became necessary for them to go to Bethlehem in order to comply with the order from the Roman emperor for a census. This must have been a difficult journey for both of them, but their distress was compounded when, on arriving at Bethlehem, they could find nowhere to stay, even though the birth was imminent.
Here, too, was a strong test of Joseph’s faith. The holy couple eventually found some lodging, traditionally located in caves outside Bethlehem, and it was here that our Lady gave birth to Jesus without the usual pains of childbirth. What a mysterious and wonderful event that must have been for Joseph, and to be part of such a marvel.
The Gospel of Luke then outlines how local shepherds, alerted to the miraculous birth by hosts of angels, came to reverence the Child, and also how Mary pondered on all these things in her heart, an attitude of awe and contemplation surely shared by her silent spouse. St. Joseph was also with our Lady when she went up to the Temple for the Presentation of the Baby Jesus, but he remained in the background as the aged Simeon spoke to Mary and prophesied how her Child was destined to be a sign of contradiction for many in Israel, and spoke about how a sword of sorrow — the crucifixion — would pierce her soul (Luke 2:34-35).
The next article will look at role played by St. Joseph in the life of Jesus at events such as the coming of the Magi, the Three Kings, to visit Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, and His Finding in the Temple at the age of twelve, as well as the growth of devotion to the saint in the early Church.
+ + +
(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions, and maintains a related web site at www.theotokos.org.uk.)