Every now and then, because of sickness or scheduling issues in his young family, my friend Jim would attend the Sunday liturgy by himself instead of with his wife and kids. “It feels strange to be here alone,” he’d say whenever he came solo. It seemed strange to me too. Though I appreciated Jim in his own right, I was used to seeing him in context, with his family members.
Jim’s remark is on my mind as I think about St. Joseph in this season of Advent. The special “year” that Pope Francis dedicated to the earthly father of Jesus comes to an end on December 8. But right now, and until next June, the Church is also observing a “Year of the Family.” Advent, then, is an opportunity to keep reflecting on St. Joseph—but in context, with Jesus and Mary.
Joseph’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders have always stressed the importance of seeing him as a family man. St. Francis de Sales, who had a special love for him, saw the members of the Holy Family as inseparable. In a prayerful address to Mary, he said, “It is impossible not to picture beside you, in a place of honor, one whom your Son in his love for you so often graced with the title of father.” We see the same insistence in the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila. “I don’t know how one can think about the queen of angels and about how she went through so much with the infant Jesus without giving thanks to St. Joseph,” she wrote in her autobiography.
St. John Paul II is one of many popes who have sounded the same theme: “Just as we cannot speak of Jesus without referring to his most holy mother, so we cannot speak of Jesus and Mary without recalling him who, through an authentic, although very particular, form of paternity, had the task of serving as ‘father’ to the Son of God” (L’Osservatore Romano, September 22, 1993).
Looking for Joseph. All of this makes sense to us. After all, wouldn’t we think our Nativity sets incomplete if Joseph were missing? The truth is, though, that for centuries, the picture of the Holy Family was like a group photo in which a key figure is blurry, faded, or off in the shadows. Jesus stood out, of course, and then came Mary, in her singular dignity as his mother. But the earthly head of this unique family was almost invisible or, at best, a feeble old man.
One reason for this is that the Church’s first teachers were countering heretical attacks about the divinity of Jesus. Given the need to underscore his identity as the true Son of God, it didn’t seem the moment for a serious exploration of Joseph’s roles as father and husband.
Centuries passed before the much-needed “rehabilitation” of St. Joseph got underway. Launched by a French scholar and theologian, Jean Gerson (1363–1429), it rejected the portrayal of Joseph as a doddering caretaker and insisted on his vigor and importance as head of the Holy Family. Teresa of Ávila and Francis de Sales spread these new insights in their popular spiritual writings. Renaissance artists took note. Their paintings put St. Joseph front and center, a strong man in the prime of life. Handsome, too! “Why must we think that Joseph was ugly?” asked Fr. Jerónimo Gracián, one of Teresa’s coworkers and confessors.
Once Joseph emerged from the shadows as an admirable protector and provider, the Holy Family also became more real and believable—a family you could turn to and even imitate in some way. Granted, the Nazareth household is unique. But their communion of life and love is an example for all families—and for all members of that larger family, the Church. The Holy Family, with the child at the center, is at the heart of the transformation that the world needs today: real people caring for and loving one another through joy and suffering.
A Few Family Pictures. As I began to read the Gospels more carefully, I came to see that the Holy Family is all about the Incarnation, the mystery of God with us in everyday life. The most helpful representations of this family became the ones that suggest this connection with our lives. Here are three that stand out to me.
A Real-Life Snapshot. The Holy Family must have seemed outwardly ordinary, because for thirty years the people of Nazareth never suspected that Jesus was the reflection of a Father who didn’t live in the village. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they asked in wonderment after the adult Jesus spoke in their synagogue (Luke 4:22).
Every day, Joseph’s family interacted in normal ways with the “less holy” families around them. Jesus played games and ran about in courtyards with other children. He learned his father’s trade. Like other women in Nazareth, Mary tended to things within the home—cleaning and cooking, laundry and clothes-making. She made daily runs to the village well. Joseph probably worked both in a home workshop and on construction sites.
It’s an ordinary scene that we can relate to: a husband, a wife, and a child interacting with the people around them. But as you reflect on it, this simple picture has the power to amaze. We aren’t accustomed to thinking about such a holy, blessed family living such an everyday life.
A Selfie. Teresa of Ávila couldn’t think about the Holy Family without seeing herself in the picture. Her response came naturally. Her mother died when Teresa was eleven, and the girl turned to Mary as her mother. Joseph came into her life in a special, fatherly way when she was twenty-one and suffering from a mysterious, debilitating illness. She attributed her healing to his intercession. St. Joseph, “being who he is, brought it about that I could rise and walk and not be crippled.”
Teresa rediscovered “the incarnation of the infant Jesus, of Mary, of Joseph, as living human beings, with whom one could speak on familiar terms, who answered you, who were interested in you,” observes author André Doze. Teresa wanted everyone to know they could experience that too.
A Wide-Angle Picture. The name “Joseph” means “may God add”—that is, “may God give us more children just like this one.” Scripture scholar Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer imagines Joseph’s father and mother exulting over their newborn son and deciding to name him Joseph as an expression of their delight.
Perhaps we can build on this theme by taking Joseph’s name as an encouragement to add ourselves to his even bigger family picture. Adrienne von Speyr points in that direction:
[Jesus, Mary, and Joseph] do not simply live a life of pleasure and joy in one another. They live there already for the Christians to come, for us. The house at Nazareth is no closed house, nor a closed paradise; it has doors and windows that open out into the Church.
The “house at Nazareth” is hospitable. It invites the weary traveler in—to learn, to rest, to be fed, to receive strength and support for the journey.
The Church in Miniature. Let’s ponder these three pictures as we reflect on Joseph and his family this Advent. There’s the real-life close-up of the holy trio, in which St. Joseph is absent or blurry no more. There’s the one that shows you with them. And finally, there’s the super-wide-angle shot that zooms out to reveal the multitudes gathered around the little family of Nazareth: Jesus, Mary, Joseph—and you and me and everyone who has been drawn into the communion of life and love in the body of Christ.
Look at it closely, and you’ll see that the Holy Family isn’t an image of only three persons. It’s a miniature of the whole Church on mission to the world.
Louise Perrotta writes about Scripture, saints, and the spiritual life. This article is adapted from her latest book, St. Joseph, Tender Father, available at wau.org.