By: Fr. James Gross
St. Joseph has been a very important person in my life. As I like to put it, he’s followed me around. Now before that starts to sound a little creepy, let me explain. When I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, it was time to go on to what’s called “major seminary” for Theology studies. Bishop Sullivan decided to send me to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio—in other words, the “seminary of St. Joseph.” One of the perks about that was each year the Feast Day of St. Joseph, March 19th, was a day off from classes, a sort of bonus vacation day.
When I graduated from there, I came back to be ordained a priest with six other classmates. None of us knew in advance what our first assignment would be. Bishop Sullivan liked to spring it on us on Ordination Day. My first assignment was to Devils Lake and, you guessed it, St. Joseph’s Parish. Personally, I’ve given St. Joseph a lot of attention, and that’s a good thing.
As Catholics we naturally focus quite a bit on Jesus and on Mary, his mother. But these days of Advent and Christmas present St. Joseph to us in a powerful way. Joseph is the silent rock. We don’t remember him for what he said, but for what he did and the steady, consistent way he did it. Because his actions, not his words, do the talking, I think that for some of us he slips into the background. And so we need to pull him out to the front of the stage, so to speak, and see what he has to teach us.
First of all, it’s difficult for me to fathom the holiness of Joseph. Every day he looked into the face of Jesus who is both God and man. He held Jesus in his arms; he passed on to Jesus his carpenter’s trade and showed him how to speak to and deal with other people. I can only imagine how overwhelmed I would feel if God had entrusted that same duty to me. And indeed, in today’s Gospel, we see just what Joseph was made of.
Before beginning their lives together as husband and wife, Joseph learns that Mary is with child, and he knows that he is not the father. Matthew doesn’t give us the scene of how Joseph received this news, but instead shows us Joseph’s nighttime deliberations. It’s easy to picture him tossing and turning in the darkness, restless and confused.
Here we see that both justice and charity are very strong in St. Joseph. We hear that to divorce Mary was a real option. In fact, it is chilling to think that, for Mary, a much worse fate than marital separation might have been in store. If a husband were to accuse a woman in Mary’s position of adultery, the law carried a maximum sentence of capital punishment by stoning. Joseph knew that such an outcome, even if farfetched, was still possible in that society.
But here’s where Joseph’s strong inclination to charity comes in. Certainly we can presume that he had seen glimpses of Mary’s outstanding holiness and virtue. Of course there would have been something special in a Godly way about the young Mary of Nazareth. Any act of infidelity to her betrothed simply didn’t add up. We can almost hear him saying, “What about the gentle, pious girl I’ve come to know and love? I can’t give up on her.”
When at last sleep overtook Joseph’s grieving heart, the angel of the Lord spoke this to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” This particular moment must have been such a joyous relief to him. He could be both just and charitable, without short-changing one for the other. He thinks, “That’s it! Mary conceived her son by a miracle of God’s doing. Now is the time for nurturing her, not punishing or discarding her. It is right to provide this blessed boy and his mother a fitting home. I have to go to her and hear her side of things. God will make it all turn out okay.” As he would do so often in his life, Joseph listened to and obeyed God’s advice.
St. Joseph is a wonderful model for all kinds of Christian men. He is obviously a model to fathers because of the care he provided for Mary and Jesus, as well as for the spiritual headship he exercised in his household. St. Joseph is also a model for engaged men, as we see in the reading at this Mass. He was concerned about what was best for Mary, and listened carefully to God’s guiding voice. Many engaged men are thinking about all sorts of other things, not ever bringing God into the picture. “How am I getting ahead in my career? What will my buddies and I do this weekend?” He shows men that being a man of prayer is the only solid foundation to loving and honoring one’s fiancée.
St. Joseph is a tremendous guide for us priests, as well. He is the patron of the universal church, and we priests look to him as a model of caring for Christ as we tend to Christ’s Body, the Church here on earth. His chastity as husband of the Virgin was not cold and detached, but filled with the warmth of devotion and a complete gift of self.
We have a treasure in St. Joseph. As Christmas approaches, we ought to be thankful, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for the beautiful family God provided for His Son. They are a source of inspiration for every family. What’s really inspiring is the way Joseph received the guidance of God and acted on it, without looking back. That’s the kind of courage our world is sorely lacking.