With our attention properly upon the infant Jesus, His Mother Mary, and St. Joseph this time of year, it might be good to look back at the Old Testament figure for whom Mary’s chaste spouse was most likely named. That would be Joseph, son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, and great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph is a popular name for Jewish boys precisely as a memorial of this patriarchal figure whose story is one of the great epic narratives of early human civilization. Evoking this connection, St. Matthew, whose genealogy of Jesus consciously omits some names, calls St. Joseph the “son of Jacob,” although the Jacob in question may well have been a more distant ancestor. But this inspired juxtaposition of names prompts reflection on the original Joseph ben Jacob. The elements of his story are as familiar as they are perennial: a boy thrust into an unchosen adventure; a young man who must make his way in a strange land; a lowly servant who becomes a ruler; a lost brother who turns out to be the keeper of the family’s destiny.
Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his enviouis brothers. Despite finding himself in a foreign land under inauspicious circumstances, Joseph, with God’s hand of favor upon him, exercised such diligence and prudence that he was given complete management of the household by his master, Potipher. Things were looking up for Joseph, but not for long. The attractive young servant caught the eye of the master’s wife and Scripture says that she pursued her lust for him “day after day.” He refused her advances, though: “Behold, with me here, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?”
Unwilling to take no for an answer, Potipher’s wife caught him alone in the house one day, and grasping his garment, insisted yet again, “Lie with me!” Joseph fled, but she kept the article of clothing to use against him in a charge of attempted rape that landed him in the pharaoh’s prison.
Joseph correctly interpreted a dream for one of his cell-mates, cupbearer of the pharaoh, who was subsequently released from prison with Joseph’s plea not to forget him ringing in his ears. A couple of years passed. Joseph, once again with God’s hand of favor turning his every endeavor to success, had risen to the very highest position available to a trusty, yet probably wondered every night if his former cell-mate had forgotten him. It was not until Pharaoh had a series of dreams that made him desperate for an interpreter that the cupbearer remembered Joseph and he was released. His rise was as rapid and unexpected as once his descent into the cistern had been. Pharaoh made him second-in-command, from which position he provisioned Egypt and the surrounding lands to withstand a coming famine, enlarged the territory and power of Pharaoh, and was ultimately the supplier of both bread and a new territory of residence to his kin. Joseph in Egypt is the essential background story to Passover and the Exodus 400 years later.
Envy is the reason St. Joseph has to lead the Holy Family to Egypt because — as he is warned in a dream — the Christ Child is the target of the murderous intentions of Herod. Divine Providence saw to the funds for the journey in the form of the Wise Man’s offering of gold. St. Matthew connects the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt to the 400 years (between Joseph and Moses) that Israel was in Egypt: “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son'” — Matt 2:14, 15 (compare Hos 11:1; Ex 4:22).
Two thousand years earlier in Egypt, Joseph had preserved grain and saved the fledgling nation of Israel from starvation. In Egypt, St. Joseph protected the nascent Church in the person of Mary, along with the Living Bread that would feed it, in the person of the Christ Child.
The incomparable value of what was entrusted to St. Joseph staggers the imagination. Hasn’t many a pious man found himself breaking out in a sweat over the weight of responsibility that devolves upon him with his wife’s announcement of a pregnancy? Or found his joy at the birth of a first child mingled with holy fear at what God has placed in his hands? Imagine what it was like then for St. Joseph. Certainly the original Joseph would have been much on his mind as he trekked toward Egypt with the Holy Mother and Child. He must have been encouraged by the story of God’s provision for Joseph in a foreign land. He must have pondered his example of chastity and diligence, for it was Joseph’s chastity, motivated by piety, that made him ready to shoulder the weighty responsibility that God had placed upon him — and it was likewise for his namesake, whom the Son of God would call “Daddy.”
We know that, from the time of their betrothal, St. Joseph intended to be continent, a protector of the Holy Virgin. This is shown by her words to the angel at being told she would bear a son. If Joseph and Mary had been intending a nuptial union, Mary would have assumed that the child she was to bear would come from him. Instead she responds with the question of how this was to be — a most natural question in light of them both being bound by her vow of virginity. Scripture assures of this continence when it says that St. Joseph “knew her not.”
With the example of the Old Testament Joseph in mind, we can imagine how the beloved head of the Holy Family would answer those who assert that he fathered children with Mary after the birth of Jesus. Certainly the testimony of angels, shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Virgin herself, left no doubt in St. Joseph’s mind that the woman he was caring for had been espoused by the Holy Spirit. St. Jerome expressed shocked outrage that any one would think of St. Joseph that he “dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Ghost, the mother of his Lord.” St. Joseph could paraphrase the original Joseph in answering anyone who so accused him, “Behold, with me here, my Master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and He has put even His Only Begotten Son in my charge. There is no man bearing a greater charge in the entire world than I, and He has withheld nothing from me except Mary, because she is His spouse and the Mother of His Son. How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?”