It’s time once again for the Advent procession. Time to get out the figurines of the Nativity set and let the children move them about the house. From room to room and shelf to shelf the Wise Men process on their journey that will end on Epiphany, while Joseph and Mary, by a different route, will be carried to the same Christmas Eve destination. On that night, we will celebrate the Gift of all Gifts, but now while righteous Joseph leads the Virgin Mother toward the manger — not his choice of maternity lodging! — and while they both are carried (more or less delicately) from place to place, it is a good time to think about what a gift the man Joseph himself was, and is.
A Gift to Mary
If ever a man could have felt himself to be superfluous in a situation, a real 5th wheel, it might have been Joseph, for the Incarnation was very pointedly accomplished without his help. Having signed up to be the husbandly guardian of a woman who was vowed to holy virginity was one thing. But when unexpectedly she was expecting: everything around him — their plans, his and her reputations, the entire way of life he was anticipating — was suddenly overturned. Then, just to make things interesting — and Joseph was not asking for interesting — angels started having conversations with him. Gulp.
Joseph was a problem-solving kind of guy. A very practical guy. The kind who measured twice and cut once. All craftsmen spend their days solving problems. He was used to the kind of problem that you solved by cutting it down to size, maneuvering it into position, and getting a handle on it. But this problem with Mary was not like that. It was big and would only get bigger. And after the angel came, it was cosmic in dimension.
Every good man, upon learning he will become a father, feels a weight of responsibility descend up on him that makes him tremble. As it dawned upon Joseph what God the Father was placing into his care, he had to be shaken to the very core of his being. And he had to know that really, truly, he was not needed. The God who created Eden could miraculously supply Mary and her Babe a home. The God who had strewn the wilderness with manna and kept a poor widow’s flour and oil jars from emptying could feed them. The God who dispatched the armies of Pharaoh, knocked down the walls of Jericho, and breathed death upon the Assyrians could protect them. The God who would draw foreign kings to pour treasures at the foot of the Mother had no need of a carpenter’s wages. Of what use was Joseph?
But God the Father choose to mediate his care for the Virgin Mother and Child through a man, through this man, Joseph. In so doing he made them a family, bringing Joseph, too, under His provident care. Joseph in his very self, being a man, was a gift to Blessed Virgin. Against the rougher background of his manliness, the delicate, shimmering beauty of her holy femininity glowed with more luster. His was the hand that steadied her step over rocky ground. His the powerful arms that wrestled loads from their beasts and heavy furniture into place in their home. His the deep and reassuring voice that bid her a good night and his the protective gaze under which she slept.
A Gift to Jesus
Did Jesus need Joseph? Not in an absolute sense, for perfectly complete in both his humanity and divinity, with a Mother who is the Seat of Wisdom, Jesus could have grown into a psychologically healthy man without Joseph. But what an inestimable gift this man, this foster father, was to Jesus. To Jesus, infant, laid to sleep upon Joseph’s broad, muscular chest. To Jesus at one, tossed giggling into the air. To Jesus at three, playing with wood scraps. To Jesus, 6, prospecting the countryside for likely trees. To Jesus, 9, bent over the plane, while Joseph, smelling of sweat and sawdust, trains his movement. To Jesus, 12, at the other end of the saw, sinews straining to match Joseph lunge for lunge and pull for pull.
Joseph’s were the gestures the Divine Child imitated. Joseph’s the cadence of masculine speech. Joseph’s the habits of work. Joseph’s the direct and friendly gaze. Joseph’s the laugh and wry humor. Joseph’s the stride and stance. “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”
A Gift to All Men
Joseph is a gift to all men. That He would give Joseph to Mary and Jesus as husband and father to complete the Holy Family shows God’s deep interest in these roles, the great value He places upon them. Joseph illustrates the mystery of complementarity — that union with “the other” by which men and women contrast and complete one another. And his place in the Holy Family shows that God wants children to live and grow up within that mystery.
Through Joseph, God demonstrates the value of “techne ,” that work of shaping the material world to the use of human beings that remains the day-to-day occupation of most men. God allowed Joseph the dignity of supplying — through his manual labor — the needs of the Holy Family, even though God could have miraculously supplied them all things without his effort.
Moreover, by making Joseph a gift to Mary and Jesus, God shows men that being a man is a gift. Joseph’s silence in Scripture and his unexplained fade from the Gospel scenes give us a portrait of a selfless life, lived for others. Joseph lived for Mary and Jesus, pouring himself out for them so completely that he disappears from the story. His very absence testifies to the power of his presence, to the total gift he made of himself in obedience to God and out of love for Mary and Jesus.
To all men Joseph is the model of a gift, loved by God, given by God, giving of himself. He is God’s stamp of approval on men as men, being themselves, doing manly labor, taking their places as heads of families, engaging the world in those wonderful ways that are particularly masculine. Joseph, in the very goodness of his being with and for the Virgin Mother and Child rebukes the spirit of this world that incites males to selfish juvenility and refutes the demonic impulse of female disdain for men. Let us implore his powerful help:
O Saint Joseph, we pray to you for those who are out of work, for those who want to earn their living or support their families.
You who are the patron of workers; grant that unemployment may vanish from our ranks; that all those who are ready to work may put their strength and abilities in serving their fellowmen and earn a just salary.
You are the patron of families; do not let those who have children to support and raise lack the necessary means. Have pity on our brothers and sisters held down in unemployment and poverty because of sickness or social disorders. May each and every one have the joy of contributing, according to his abilities, to the common prosperity by an honorable livelihood. Grant that we may all share together in the abundant goods God has given us and that we may help underprivileged countries.