The Word Among Us

Advent 2009 Issue

Joseph, A Saint for the Perplexed

The man closest to Jesus lived with mystery.

By: Louise Perrotta

Joseph, A Saint for the Perplexed: The man closest to Jesus lived with mystery. by Louise Perrotta

This year as you unpack your Nativity set, take an extra moment to look at the figure of St. Joseph.

If your set is typical, you’ll see him as a serene man holding a lantern or a staff. You could hardly find a better visual image of the "faithful and prudent servant" that Jesus commends for watching so carefully over his master’s household (Matthew 24:45).

This is just the way Joseph is described in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. He is faithful, just, instantly obedient—the ideal earthly father for the Son of God. But if you read these chapters closely, you can glimpse another side: not the finished saint in all his virtue but a good person growing in holiness through testing.

Life didn’t run smoothly for Joseph. Though uniquely blessed in his vocation, he ran into some twists and turns that must have left him deeply mystified. It’s not too hard to picture him asking God, as we sometimes do, "Why me?" or "What’s this all about?"

A Man Like Us. What was Joseph like?

The way he handled emergencies like the flight to Egypt suggests that he was coolheaded, resourceful, and take-charge—just the kind of guy I’d want to find in my local emergency room or fire station. His occupation suggests that he was physically strong. The Greek word for "carpenter" (used in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3) means not just a woodworker but a stonemason, a bricklayer, or a craftsman who works with hard materials.

Because Scripture doesn’t ever quote Joseph directly, it’s often assumed that he was the strong, silent type. More likely, the gospel writers were just trying to emphasize his uncomplaining obedience to God. But in any first-century Mediterranean village, with its narrow streets and shared courtyards, social interaction was intense and unavoidable. Personally, I see Joseph as friendly and relational, like any self-employed tradesman who is good at customer relations and business contacts.

Inwardly, though, Joseph surely knew the deep stillness in which God speaks to the heart. His faithful observance of the Mosaic law (Luke 2:22-24,41) was clearly a response of love flowing out of a hidden life with God.

Lord, Why This? Joseph was a normal guy looking forward to marriage when he met his first great perplexity: His fiancée was pregnant—and he wasn’t the father. We are not told how he took the shocking news. But since it threatened to dash his hopes for married bliss, it’s reasonable to assume that he experienced some emotional turmoil.

Matthew tells us that Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly because he was "a righteous man" who didn’t want to "expose her to shame" (1:19). There’s great drama behind this matter-of-fact statement. Any upright Jewish man would have been expected to separate from a bride who had committed adultery, but Joseph determined to do this in a way that would cause Mary the least unpleasantness. His "quiet divorce" solution was a sensitive and compassionate response to the situation. I suspect that he reached it after some sleepless nights and anguished conversations with God.

Joseph must have felt relieved and delighted when God spoke to him in a dream and told him to change course. But this new approach came with its own set of question marks. Who was this unusual child? What would it be like to live with a woman who belonged to God in such a unique way? Joseph must have sensed that his family life would be radically different from what he had been expecting.

Despite the questions, Joseph said yes. Taking Mary "in all the mystery of her motherhood," as John Paul II put it, he made a total gift of self that catapulted him into the very center of God’s plan for the human race.

Now What? With the next angelic command—to flee to Egypt—Joseph must have felt not just perplexed but profoundly bewildered. Consider the situation from his perspective.

Joseph had been told that Jesus was conceived "through the Holy Spirit" and would "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). Comparing notes with Mary, he learned that Jesus is the "son of David" and "the Son of God" and would "be great" (Luke 1:32-33,35). In Bethlehem, he met shepherds who told of angels announcing the birth of the "Messiah and Lord," and magi who came to worship "the king of the Jews" (Luke 2:11; Matthew 2:2).

So what was he to think when he suddenly found himself guiding his family down the road not to glory but to exile? In the heat of the moment, he had to deal with many urgent practical questions: How would he provide for Jesus and Mary on the two-hundred-mile trek? What was the safest route? How would the family survive as immigrants? Would he be able to find work?

Undoubtedly, Joseph met every challenge with the same obedient faith he had shown in responding to his dreams (Matthew 2:13-14, 20-21). But in his quiet moments, I can picture Joseph in some hut in Egypt, turning to God and pouring out his confusion: "What’s this all about? How are you going to save the human race if my family and I are refugees in a foreign land?"

Why Me? Upon returning to Nazareth, Joseph must have enjoyed some deeply happy and peaceful years with his small family. With God present in his marriage and family in so literal a way, he was truly blessed. But he still had his challenges.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel once said: "Imagine sitting down to dinner every day with the Incarnate Word and the Immaculate Conception." Is it possible that Joseph felt just a tiny bit inadequate in his role of authority over these two, whose holiness far surpassed his? How humbling that must have been!

Though not biological, Joseph’s fatherhood was nonetheless real. Jesus called him "Abba," obeyed him, and looked to him for fatherly input. But how do you raise a child as special as this? Joseph could have done it only by seeking divine help at every step, trusting that when God gives a task, he provides everything needed to fulfill it.

And so, relying on God, Joseph played an active role as Jesus’ father. As was the custom, he assumed primary responsibility for Jesus’ training once the boy turned three—especially for teaching him the Jewish faith. He also made it possible for Jesus to learn Hebrew, the language of Scripture. Most villagers of the day knew Aramaic only; when Scripture was read aloud in the synagogue, they waited for the accompanying translations and homilies to understand what they had heard.

Like other Nazareth dads, Joseph passed on his trade. In his home workshop, he taught Jesus how to make and repair things like plows and lamp stands. On construction sites, Joseph & Son worked side by side, wrestling foundation stones and roof beams into place.

Joseph embraced his calling so fully that everyone in Nazareth thought of Jesus as the carpenter’s son and were astonished when he began to preach in "gracious words" and perform "mighty deeds" (Luke 4:22; Matthew 13:54). Their reaction also indicates that during his growing-up years, Jesus worked no miracles that might have dispelled the image of an ordinary family going about its business.

What’s Going On? So there was Joseph, living at the heart of the greatest mystery ever, but not seeing the spectacular miracles you’d expect if the Messiah were living under your roof. He couldn’t have forgotten the prophecies and miracles surrounding Jesus’ birth. So the situation must have been increasingly mystifying. How could the Messiah fulfill his mission if he was living a hidden life in a small village of a few hundred people?

On the one hand, Joseph knew Jesus intimately, the way you do when you live with someone day-in and day-out. On the other hand, Jesus’ full identity and mission were shrouded in deep mystery. There was something about their son that neither Joseph nor Mary could quite get. When, at the finding in the Temple, Jesus explained that he had to be in his Father’s house, "they did not understand what he said to them." It was not the first time they were bewildered about their son (Luke 2:18,33,47-48,50).

Mary pondered all of these events (Luke 2:19,51) and went on to become Jesus’ first and best disciple. Joseph, it seems, wasn’t given that opportunity. Since he disappears from the story after the family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Mary appears without him at Cana, the assumption is that he died sometime before Jesus began his public work. It is poignant to consider that he never saw the fulfillment of the mission to which he had given himself so completely.

Who Do You Say I Am? In the Nativity icon known to Eastern Catholics and other Christians of the Eastern churches, Joseph is pictured hunched over in a posture that suggests inner turmoil over Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Sometimes an old man—the devil in disguise—is shown speaking to him, trying to fill him with doubts about Jesus’ divine origin.

The drama portrayed in the icon is not Joseph’s alone. Again and again, each of us has to answer Jesus’ question: "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15). Is this really God’s Son? Can I accept the reality of the Incarnation in all its mystery? Can I open myself to God’s saving power? Can I trust him when life turns confusing?

Though he lived with unsolved mysteries, Joseph gave God a wholehearted yes. Like the wise man—a wise carpenter—he built his house on rock (Matthew 7:24): He heard God’s word and did it.

Called off the beaten track and beyond his comfort level, Joseph walked by faith. Whenever we find ourselves puzzled, perplexed, or deeply mystified, Joseph’s example—and intercession—can help us do the same.

Louise Perrotta is on the editorial staff of The Word Among Us. She is the author of St. Joseph: His Life and His Role in the Church Today.