With our Lord, we are face-to-face with the great mystery of the Incarnation, face-to-face with the God-Man, who is the occasion and the central object of this mystery. The relation of Saint Joseph to this mystery is summed up in two considerations — namely, what the saint has contributed to this mystery and how he contributed to it.
The saint shared in the mystery of the Incarnation in three ways.
First, he contributed in his own particular way to the realization of the Incarnation. As is known, he was not the natural father of Jesus. Thus, his relation to the Incarnation is not an immediate one. Mary alone was immediately connected with the actual fulfillment of the mystery, in that she gave her consent to Christ’s conception and allowed the Holy Spirit to form the sacred humanity of Jesus from her blood. Only in an indirect manner did Saint Joseph participate in the mystery, by fulfilling the conditions dependent on him and necessary for the Incarnation — namely, the protection of Mary’s virginity. It was of paramount necessity that the conception and birth of Christ should be virginal. This condition Saint Joseph fulfilled in faithfully safeguarding the virginity of his spouse before and during his married life with her.
Only a few condemners of virginity and destroyers of our Lord’s honor have dared to deny this prerogative, contrary to the universal belief of Christians, by presenting a few less evident texts in a contrary sense (Matt. 1:25; 12:46). Sometimes Holy Writ mentions an occurrence that does not take place up to a certain point, without, however, intending to convey the meaning that it does occur later (Gen. 8:7; 49:10; Ps. 109:1). Thus, too, the word “brethren” in the Scripture is applied to all classes of kindred. Hence, when in the Sacred Text there is a reference to the brethren of Jesus (Matt. 12:47), the word may with equal right be applied to Joseph’s brothers or sisters. Again, when Jesus is designated as the “firstborn,” the phrase may properly mean the “only-begotten” son — that is, to the exclusion of any other. In fact, it often happens that the firstborn child is the only one born.
Much more directly, indeed, in a manner much more effectual and excellent did the saint share in the support, upbringing, and safeguarding of the divine humanity. Jesus, this divine Child, had an infinitely wise, rich, powerful Father in Heaven. But this Father exercised His wisdom and love toward His Son by giving Him on earth a foster father who was to be to Him a support, a protector, and His all; and for this purpose He furnished Him with the genuine heart of a father, a heart full of love and self-sacrifice. But this father was a mortal man, Saint Joseph, who in his poverty could lay claim to nothing but the product of his hands.
With the toil of his hands he was obliged to offer protection to God forsaken in this world, to procure for Him sustenance, clothing, and nourishment. It was to his care that this mysterious poor one, this Child, apparently fatherless on earth, was left. And when Herod sought the Child to put Him to death, the heavenly Father sent an angel indeed, but only as a messenger, giving orders for the flight; the rest He left entirely in the hands of the appointed protector. Then it was that the fatherly love of Joseph was the only stronghold that received and protected the divine Child — the fatherly love of the saint, which carried the Child through the desert into the land of the pharaohs and there concealed Him carefully until all His enemies were removed. Then, on the arms of Joseph, the Child returned to the Holy Land to be nurtured and provided for at Nazareth during many years by the labor of the saint’s hands. This support and upbringing of the Child is mentioned in Holy Writ by merely one word; yet it expresses in truth, according to the ordinary measure of human life, a duration of days, weeks, and years. Whatever a human son owes to a human father for all the benefits of his rearing and support, Jesus owes to Joseph. He was to Jesus a foster father, teacher, and protector — in a word, His all, here below.
A third aspect of the saint’s participation in the mystery of the Incarnation regards the application of the effects, blessings, and graces of the Incarnation to mankind. This is the solicitude of the saint in regard to Christ’s Mystical Body, which is made up of the faithful, and without which we cannot even adequately consider Christ. He came into the world and assumed human nature only for the purpose of making of us His Mystical Body and of uniting us by means of grace to Himself as our head. This Mystical Body is, as it were, the spiritual extension of Christ become incarnate, whom Saint Joseph nurtured and educated with fatherly love. The purpose and end of this education was none other than ourselves. The angel gave sufficient evidence of this fact when he told Joseph to confer on the Child the name of Jesus because He would save His people from their sins, would redeem them actually and efficaciously through grace, the very source of which is the great mystery of the Incarnation. Saint Joseph continually carries on this mystery and is its devoted servant by procuring graces for us from his Son, as we shall have occasion to see in greater detail directly. “Four things,” says a spiritual writer, “caused our downfall: a woman, a man, a tree, and a serpent; four things restored us again: Mary, Christ, the Cross, and Joseph.”
Moreover, Joseph above all rendered his services to the divine humanity with a singular love. The less the saint had to do in a bodily manner toward effecting the Incarnation, the more was this omission to be compensated for by love if he would properly administer his office. God attended to that. When Divine Providence bestows a mission on anyone, it also grants him the necessary means and qualifications. God creates the hearts of men (Ps. 32:15); He can change them and mold them like wax, and direct them as watercourses. And, as on a later occasion, at the Master’s word to John, “Behold thy mother” (John 19:27), the evangelist, to do justice to his charge, was given a son’s heart toward Mary like unto the Savior’s heart, so did God the Father direct the heart of Joseph to the Child Jesus by sympathy, cooperation, and fatherly love. This was a heavenly supernatural love in the heart of Joseph, a love far deeper and more powerful than any natural father’s love could be.
Furthermore, Joseph served the humanity of Jesus with great unselfishness, without any regard to self-interest, but not without sacrifices and inconveniences. He does not toil for himself but seems to be an instrument intended for the benefit of others, an instrument that is put aside as soon as it has done its work, and this apparently without recognition. In fact, Saint Joseph appears in the Gospel story only in connection with the Child Jesus and disappears from the scene once the childhood of Christ has passed. Of the great and sublime mysteries of the childhood of Christ, of which he was a witness and which were so honorable and glorious to him, hardly a ray falls upon Saint Joseph.
On the contrary, it is the particular vocation of the saint to dim the divine light of the mysteries, to hide them, and thereby to withdraw himself from notice. He is the shadow of the heavenly Father not only in the sense that he is the earthly representative of the authority of God the Father as regards the Son; but also by means of his apparent natural fatherhood he is to conceal for a while the divinity of this Son. This beautiful and amiable Child, whom Saint Joseph carries in his arms, has God in Heaven as Father and is Himself God. This is a great light; and if this light shines with all its brightness upon the Child, its beams fall upon the whole earth with the effulgent glory of the divinity. This, however, was not to take place immediately.
Hence, by means of his foster fatherhood God places Saint Joseph as a shadow between Himself and the Christ Child; and this shadow so conceals the light that, if we except a few faint rays, the bright side of the divine mystery remains hidden and for Joseph, too, produces no results. This is certainly a wonderfully sublime and divine vocation, but not the most welcome to human nature. Such, then, are the relations of the saint to the humanity of Jesus.
These relations are so intimate and important that, with the exception of the Mother of Jesus, no one else can claim them. The mystery of the Incarnation, however, is of the highest, yes, of the most fundamental importance to the Church and Christendom; and to this mystery the life of the saint is immediately dedicated. He is truly the angel of the great council and the saint of the holy childhood of Jesus, its protector and nurturer — the living, created providence, we might say, which watches over the Christ Child. Such is the peculiar greatness and glory of Saint Joseph’s vocation. It proves that his is a very special and signal rank among the saints of the Kingdom of God. For in the various arrangements of the natural and supernatural worlds and in the different communications of God to His creatures, there exists one order that surpasses in dignity and holiness every other order of nature and of grace. This is the hypostatic order or the circle, whose center and focus is the humanity of Jesus in its personal union with the second Person of the Divinity.
The luminaries revolving about and serving the central sun are the saints who have participated in the realization of the mystery of the Incarnation and who thus form a special relationship to the God-Man and are linked to His person by a most intimate union. All other saints, as great as they may be, are connected with a mission of Christ, but those just referred to are directly concerned with His person. To this privileged class belong the distinguished family of blood relations of our Lord and God; and hence Saint Joseph in a most special manner, not only because he is the nearest and the last of David’s descendants, but also because he is the husband of Mary and the legal father of the Savior. No one except Mary, the Mother of Jesus according to the flesh, can dispute our saint’s rank in this class. Such is Saint Joseph’s position in the Kingdom of God, surpassing far in dignity and honor all the angels; for “to which of the angels did God say: Thou art my son?” (Heb. 1:5).
This dignity and honor assure the saint a very special degree of recognition, veneration, love, and gratitude from the hearts of all the members of Christ’s kingdom. He is not only a powerful and great saint in the Kingdom of God, but a benefactor of the whole of Christendom and mankind. The benefactions of the Egyptian Joseph toward his family and people can in no manner be compared with those of Saint Joseph in regard to the Christian family. In the house of Joseph at Nazareth and under his care was the redemption of mankind prepared. What he accomplished he did for us; we are of a certainty the objective of all his undertakings.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in The Truth about Saint Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.