In the course of the liturgical year we have a number of feasts celebrating specific events in the life of Mary, and there are numerous Marian options for the Eucharist as well; this reflects Mary’s position in Scripture, dogma, and devotion. Joseph, on the contrary, has only the one feast, of a derivative nature (“husband of Mary”), and even that is one feast fewer than it used to be; this, too, is in line with the place he holds in Scripture, in dogma, and in our current devotional life.
Art and piety have generally presented Joseph as old and feeble, peripheral to what was happening and very secondary in what he accomplished; one might point out, after all, that the New Testament does not cite a single thing that he ever said. More recent views of Joseph, on the other hand, show him as younger, a fit spouse for a woman of Mary’s age and position, but don’t go much further than that.
If we consider Joseph’s position in the lives of Mary and Jesus, though, and if we look more deeply into possible meanings of what Matthew’s Gospel has to say of him, we might want to rethink his importance and the exact nature of who he was.
I would like to suggest three considerations which might change our perception of Joseph, two of them based on Matthew’s first chapters and the other on Joseph’s relationship with Mary.
Matthew opens his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus according to the male line, ending in Joseph; even though Matthew shifts attention to Mary at the last moment, refusing to indicate that Jesus is the son of Joseph’s flesh in that line, he does go on to focus on Joseph in the role of father. The verses that follow are more significant, as they point to the utter familiarity with the Holy Spirit that Joseph shows: four times he hears God’s word to him in sleep and, upon rising, follows that inspiration without question, hesitation, or commentary. I think that we can take the “angel of the Lord” in these passages to mean the Holy Spirit:
— 1:19-25. [Mary’s] husband Joseph, being a man of honor and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally. He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (Is 7:14), a name with means “God is with us.” When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home and, though he had not had intercourse with her, she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.
— 2:13. The angel of the Lord warns Joseph to escape to Egypt because Herod “intends to search for the child and do away with him.” Joseph gets up, takes the mother and child, and leaves that very night for Egypt.
— 2:19. After Herod’s death, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said “Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, went back to the land of Israel.
— 2:22-23. Joseph hears that Archelaus has succeeded to his father Herod’s position as ruler of Judea and is afraid to go there. The Spirit “warns” Joseph, and he returns to Galilee instead. Matthew does not say that the Spirit directs him to do so, but Joseph settles in Nazareth, which Matthew ties to a prophecy.
I conclude that Joseph is a man of deep prayer, absolutely familiar with the Holy Spirit, and I would propose that because of his absolute and instant obedience we can even say that he is “filled with the Holy Spirit” in a manner akin to Mary in Luke’s Gospel. This is important when we realize that it would have been his role to form the child Jesus in prayer, and to help him find the innermost heart of Scripture, but also to use it as the basis for His prayer. Joseph would have shared this role with Mary, of course, but as the head of the family he would have had the preponderant role.
My second consideration is that Joseph formed Jesus in His attitude toward the Law in another and special way. The first of the passages from Matthew above (1:19-25) indicates that Joseph is a “just” man, a man obedient to the Law, but it also sketches his attempt to circumvent the Law’s rigors in regard to Mary. This is the man Jesus would have learned a great deal from in forming His views of the Law and His actual practice of everyday life in a way most faithful to God.
This much, from the Scripture, gives us a fairly clear picture of a straightforward, honest and spiritual man, one perfectly in tune with God’s will and free of any attachments that would hinder him from living out that will. Joseph respects the Law but has gone beyond it to find God in his heart.
If we also look at how Joseph related to Mary we would see his identity in a different light. Consider the possible loneliness of Mary. Yes, God was her all-in-all, but as human beings we have a very deep need to be known, as well as a very profound need to be loved; we hunger for a human intimacy that has nothing to do with sex. I hypothesize that Joseph was, as Mary’s husband, the perfect one to share her love for God, the only one (in Jesus’ early years) to whom she could speak of what was in her mind and heart on a simply human level.
Was there a friendship between Mary and Joseph? I think that they did feel that, as Monica and Augustine did, and Francis and Clare as well, but I believe that they also shared a mutual respect, affection and love which characterized their union in marriage and their mission to parent a most special Child. What kind of conversation would these two have had when they were alone? And when they prayed together, as I am sure that they did? When they discussed their plans for the day, the month, the future? I cannot imagine them being silent, inhumanly focused only on God, and I see them rather as smiling and close in a very personal way.
Joseph, therefore, has, I believe, a much closer equality to Mary in some ways than we ordinarily think. He is at the forefront in only a small part of the Scriptures, and then, like John the Baptist, he must disappear in order that the Lord “increase.” He is nonetheless a true father to Jesus, a true husband to Mary, a solid rock for their growth as individuals and as a family, and is critical in their becoming who they are. I believe that we owe him far more reverence, respect and love than we currently show, and I would certainly not be averse to giving Joseph a much stronger liturgical presence than we have now. TP
Father Kestermeier, S.J., professor in the English Department at Creighton University, celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit (Wisconsin Province) in August 2012.