Here is a riddle for you: he is the most influential person in the Bible, yet not a single word of his is recorded. Can you guess who this is?
If you answered Joseph, the husband of Mary, you’re right! Of course, we honor Joseph on his feast day of March 19. And many schools, churches, and hospitals are named after him. But by and large, Mary gets most of our attention at Christmas. Sometimes even the shepherds, the Magi, or the angel Gabriel capture our imagination more than Joseph.
But Joseph played a crucial role in the Gospels, and we can learn a lot from him. We can see in him someone who is obedient, humble, and generous. We see a man willing to make major sacrifices for his family and for the Lord. We see someone humble but courageous, a man God could rely on. So let’s take a look at this silent servant of the Lord to see what he can teach us during this Advent season.
The Right Man for the Job. Most employers know how important it is to find just the right person to fill a key position in a company. They look for people with the best qualifications, a good work ethic, and an ability to work well with the other employees. So what do you think would be a good job description for the role of “foster father” to the Son of God? What kind of person was God looking for?
If we look at the criteria God used with other people in the past, we might get a good idea of who could become the “earthly father” of his Son. In the past, God chose people like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. We look to these men as great heroes of the faith, yet each of them had their flaws. Abraham lied about his wife, Sarah, and let the king of Egypt take her into his harem (Genesis 12:10-20). Jacob was a master manipulator (31:1-21). Moses killed a man and then fled the country to avoid prosecution (Exodus 2:11-15). David committed adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1-27).
If they were so flawed, why did God choose them? Because despite their flaws, they tried their best to live by faith. They loved God and sought to live in obedience to him. It wasn’t their talents and gifts that won God over; it was their open, trusting hearts. The Bible calls Abraham “the friend of God” (James 2:23). It tells us that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a person speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). And it tells us that David was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
In other words, God knew what kind of men these were. He knew that despite their weaknesses, they would stay with him and try to be faithful. And this is exactly how God saw Joseph. He knew that Joseph was “a righteous man” whose heart would always be in the right place (Matthew 1:19). And so he chose him for this noble but demanding task.
A Man of Faith. God chose Joseph to protect, care for, and lead the Holy Family because he was a man of faith. When Mary told him that she was pregnant, Joseph was deeply hurt, but instead of exposing her, he decided to divorce her quietly. Imagine that! As hurt or confused or angry as he might have been, he still knew he should try to shield her from gossip and cruelty.
But when an angel confirmed what Mary had told him—that she was, in fact, pregnant by the Holy Spirit—Joseph changed his mind. He stepped out in faith and embraced the new role God had for him. He had no idea how the future was going to play out, but it didn’t matter. God had made his will known, and Joseph accepted it.
After Jesus was born, the angel warned Joseph that his family was in danger and that he had to flee Israel. Again, Joseph gave up his whole world—his plans, his friends, his home, and his work—and moved the family to Egypt on a moment’s notice. He didn’t have a job there, he probably didn’t know anyone there, and he likely didn’t have much money. Still, Joseph obeyed.
We can say that Joseph’s faith had already been emboldened by everything that had happened: Mary’s surprise pregnancy, the angel’s message, Jesus’ birth, and the visit of the Magi. But we all know how easy it can be to lose sight of past blessings when present troubles crop up. Joseph may or may not have been afraid, but he didn’t let fear control him. Instead, he trusted that God would take care of him and his family. He never allowed himself to look back and regret his decision because he never forgot who was behind all of these events.
Embracing a New Plan. God has a marvelous plan for each of our lives. Sometimes that plan is very different from what we have in mind. You can imagine Joseph, before the angel’s visit, planning on a quiet, happy life in the town of Nazareth. But that didn’t happen! Surely Joseph never thought he would have to uproot his young family and flee to Egypt. He never imagined that he would have to guard the innocent baby entrusted to him—and against someone as cruel and powerful as King Herod!
Joseph never had any training on how to raise the Son of God, either. Imagine how many times he doubted himself and wondered if he was up to the task? Imagine how many times he prayed, “God, please help me; I don’t want to make any mistakes.” Imagine Joseph, after seeing Jesus teaching the elders in the Temple, asking himself, “How can I teach my son, when he ought to be teaching me?” Joseph must have faced all kinds of doubts and fears. But he kept moving forward. And look at what he was able to accomplish!
Formed by Grace. God is asking us the same questions he asked Joseph: “Are you willing to build up your family for the sake of my Church? You don’t have to be perfect. But you do have to learn how I have called you to live.”
God has blessed us with gifts and talents, just as he blessed Joseph. And just as he did for Joseph, he asks us to use those talents as we step out in faith and lead our families to him. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, parents are the “first heralds” of the faith for their children, and the home is “the domestic church, a community of grace and prayer” (2225, 1666).
Joseph didn’t have a blueprint or a handbook on how to protect Mary, care for the Holy Family, or raise the Son of God. All he had were his own good intentions, his willingness to learn through trial and error, and his trust in God’s grace and guidance. But that was all he needed. The same is true for us.
St. Ignatius of Loyola once wrote, “There are very few men [or women] who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves entirely into his hands and let themselves be formed by his grace.” That’s what Joseph did, and that’s what God wants us to do.
Keep Moving Forward. So take Joseph as your model, and try your best to devote yourself to serving God and your family. Take one or two small areas that you want to work on and focus on them. Don’t try to do everything; just take it one step at a time, and you’ll find God opening more and more doors for you.
Then, when you come up against your weaknesses or when you find yourself falling into sin, remember Abraham, Moses, and David. Remember that you’re only human, just as they were. God doesn’t expect you to be perfect, just as he didn’t expect Joseph to perfect. All he asks is that you be as faithful as you can and keep moving forward.
So this Advent, make this your prayer: “Father, I give you permission to form me and shape me. Let your grace take hold of my life so that I can become more like your servant Joseph.” He’ll take care of everything else—just as he did for every other hero of the faith.