St. Joseph: Father, Refugee, Role Model
We can learn much from his courage and trust.
By: Deacon Greg Kandra
Is there any saint both more familiar and yet more unknown than St. Joseph? His likeness appears in statues, nativity scenes, and Christmas cards.
Countless children around the world are baptized with his name. Yet we know next to nothing about him—his upbringing, how he met Mary, or even his age. The gospels are silent about all of this, and Joseph himself never utters a word. He is effectively the silent partner in the Holy Family: a figure who works, dreams, and cares for his wife and son, then vanishes from the New Testament. As a result, one of Christianity’s most iconic figures is also a mystery—a mystery who is nonetheless intimately connected to our modern challenges.
The season of Advent is a good time to think about why Joseph matters so much today. The Church officially reveres him as the patron saint of workers, of fathers, and of a happy death. But I like to think of him as a patron for other causes that speak profoundly to us now. After all, Joseph dealt with the same crises that millions of families face today: government-sponsored terrorism, forced migration, and the pressure of leading a family in distress. Like no other saint, he can help us respond to these challenges with the steadfast faith and courage that he showed.
A Man on a Journey. Not once, but three times, the Gospels describe Joseph as a man on a journey. First, he sets out for Bethlehem with Mary, his pregnant wife, for a mandated census. Then, with their newborn baby, they flee Bethlehem for Egypt. Later, in calmer political times, Joseph takes his family to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover. Much of what we know of Joseph’s life, then, is an odyssey—heading from place to place, often going great distances to fulfill the will of God.
It is that middle journey to Egypt that has such a powerful hold on my imagination. King Herod, terrified by reports of a newborn king living in Bethlehem, has ordered the death of all the boys in that city. And so one morning, the families of Bethlehem awoke to hoofbeats outside the door and the metallic sound of swords being drawn from their sheaths. The frantic and terrified cries of mothers and children followed. It was this ancient form of state-sponsored terrorism that compelled Joseph to escape with his family from Judea to Egypt—a 200-mile journey across a desolate desert.
How many people today are compelled to leave home and comfort to make a similar journey? The worldwide number of migrants in 2015 reached 244 million, including 20 million refugees. There are Central American migrants leaving behind spouses and children to find opportunities in the north; Syrian and Lebanese families taking dangerous voyages to Europe only to be confined in crowded camps; persecuted families in Eritrea and the Horn of Africa fleeing to neighboring Ethiopia to find nothing but drought. There are literally millions of Josephs in our time.
Consider Hassan, a refugee father from Syria who was once a professional electrician with a car and a home. When the violence in Syria became unbearable, Hassan and his wife, mother-in-law, and three children sought refuge in Beirut, Lebanon. Their concrete ground-floor unit in a multistory refugee camp floods regularly. Although his family’s future is fraught with uncertainty, Hassan has made their housing safer through repairs. He has worked to register his newborn son in Lebanon. He is trying to make a life for his family in this new place.
For people like Hassan, as well as for each of us on our journey, Joseph stands as an example of resolute trust. He conveys the same message carried to him by an angel: Do not be afraid (Matthew 1:20). Without saying a word, Joseph offers steadfastness, surety, and hope. He was able to cross the distance and keep his family safe. As we wonder how, we can imagine God walking with Joseph, guiding him at critical points and giving him courage and comfort. Having made such a perilous journey, Joseph shows us that God will walk with each of us too, wherever our journey takes us.
Patron for Victims of Terrorism. The terror and religious persecution that made Joseph a refugee continue today. Christian churches and Arab mosques alike are being burned and bombed. Innocent children are being kidnapped. From the Holy Land to India, from Europe to the Americas, innumerable families know what it’s like to live under the shadow of death. They have seen small caskets carried on the shoulders of weeping fathers. They have looked into the vacant, shell-shocked eyes of mothers who cannot put their sorrow into words. In many ways, these are the descendants of the families of Bethlehem.
St. Joseph can be their advocate and intercessor. He weeps with them, grieves with them, and prays for them. He knows the only thing that prevented his family from suffering the same fate was the voice of an angel—and his own faith-filled surrender to God’s plan. His example of quiet strength can serve as an encouragement to all of us as we struggle to maintain hope in times of difficulty and personal pain. This simple man of modest means understood, more than we may realize, what it is to care for a family in a challenging or dangerous or violent time. Whenever we ask God to comfort the grieving, lift up the downtrodden, and console the terrified, Joseph joins us as an empathetic and compassionate intercessor.
Friend for the Anxious. In the late nineteenth century, wealthy Parisians sought after the services of realist portrait painter James Tissot, a celebrated French artist. One day, while doing research for a painting, Tissot stepped inside a church and was deeply moved by what he saw. This profound religious experience convinced him to devote the rest of his life to spiritual themes. The Brooklyn Museum houses many of his sketches and watercolors, among them a surprising portrait of St. Joseph.
Tissot paints Joseph leaning heavily over his carpenter’s table. His shop is cramped, with tools and wood shavings everywhere. The windows look out onto the streets of Nazareth, where townspeople go about their business. But in the middle stands Joseph, his bearded chin in hand, deep in thought. The painting’s title says it all: The Anxiety of Saint Joseph.
We rarely think of him that way. Yet what we see in Tissot’s painting is a man who knew worry and uncertainty. Joseph found himself unexpectedly about to become a father, under mysterious circumstances no less. He must have wondered how he would support this suddenly growing family, as well as how he would explain what had happened to a doubting, judgmental world.
The anxiety of Joseph is the anxiety of any nervous expectant father. It is the anxiety of anyone facing a future that seems overwhelming or a mystery that seems unsolvable or a job that seems too daunting. His worries are familiar to anyone who has ever felt that the world’s burdens were too heavy to bear. This is why we can all relate to him. In moments of worry and uncertainty, Joseph holds onto faith, hope, and trust. His example shows us how to do the same.
“Do Not Be Afraid.” This Advent, as many of us struggle with how to do God’s will or trust in his plan, St. Joseph shows us the way. For Joseph, as well as for us, the way starts by following the angel’s call not to fear. God helped Joseph navigate his burdens. He didn’t take them away; he just showed Joseph that he was trustworthy.
Joseph, in turn, listened to God’s promptings and courageously followed them. He trusted God and stayed faithful in prayer even when his work and home life were turned upside down. His love for Jesus and Mary compelled him to keep trying. In the end, his courage, trust, and steadfast love became the foundation for Jesus to grow up and fulfill the will of the Father.
We, too, can create openings for Jesus this Advent. As we try our best to follow God’s will and love our families, we can trust that Joseph is interceding for us.
This year, as you light the candles and sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” remember that the light of Jesus is growing brighter. God’s presence is closer. If you have any doubts about that, just think of Joseph, the great silent partner of the Holy Family, model of courage and perseverance in troubled times. Hold onto the words of the angel that echoed down to him—and to us—as the great defining message of Advent hope: Do not be afraid.
Deacon Greg Kandra serves the Diocese of Brooklyn. He is also the multimedia editor for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and blogs daily at Aleteia.org.