Spiritual writers are fond of calling Saint Joseph the shadow of the heavenly Father, an engaging, elevated, and truthful representation indeed. It expresses the full extent of his greatness and the complete concept of his high vocation in a most concise and sublime manner. The heavenly Father is the type and origin of all fatherhood in Heaven and on earth (Eph. 3:15); and so every human father is a representative and image of the heavenly Father. In the case of Saint Joseph, however, this is verified in a most characteristic and glorious manner, and that from three viewpoints.
First, Saint Joseph is the image of the heavenly Father as regards authority. Authority is the first distinguishing mark of the father.
This fatherhood is the august distinction and the glory of the first Person of the Most Holy Trinity. The eternal Father condescends to transfer His royal right to Saint Joseph, and this in a manner not granted to any other man. True, Saint Joseph is not the natural father of the Savior. Because of his marriage bond with Mary, however, he is the head of the Holy Family, and all its members are by right subject to him. The divine Master Himself, because of His generation from the Father, says that He is less than the Father (John 14:28); He is subject to the saint by reason of the saint’s position of authority as head of the Holy Family. Jesus belongs to Joseph as foster son, and this relationship is always recognized by the heavenly Father.
Saint Joseph confers the name of Jesus upon the Child; he presents Him in the Temple to the heavenly Father; to Joseph the heavenly Father makes known the commands and directions for the guidance of the Holy Family.
The divine Savior and Mary also saw in Joseph the visible representative of the heavenly Father. This was the reason why our Lord, as a young man, and perhaps even as a man, was subject to Joseph and carried out his orders with so much readiness, with such prompt, joyful obedience, and with such perseverance. In Joseph the Savior saw the shadow of the glory of His eternal Father; in the direction of the saint He recognized the will of His heavenly Father. It cannot be denied that this perfect obedience of Jesus to Joseph, lasting for so many years, is a glorification of the saint’s fatherhood simply unsurpassed. The more profound and the more prolonged the humility of Jesus, practiced in regard to Joseph, the greater the dignity and the elevation of the saint.
The comparison of Saint Joseph’s fatherhood with that of the heavenly Father discloses to us another glorious characteristic. The eternal Father begot His Son from all eternity in perfect sanctity and purity. What can be fancied purer and more spiritual than the origin of thought or of an idea in the faculty of our understanding? Such, in a manner, although infinitely purer and more wonderful, is the eternal generation of the only-begotten Son of the Father. The Father knows Himself and, in this knowledge of self, begets the living and substantial Image and Word of His divine nature. This living Image of His glory is His Son.
A similar mark of purity characterizes the fatherhood of Saint Joseph. Natural fatherhood has an advantage and a disadvantage. Its advantage lies in the actual conferring of human nature and life on the child; its disadvantage is in the fact that it sacrifices virginity and bodily integrity. The divine nature of the heavenly Father and the Son, as well as the predictions of the prophets, demanded that our Savior should not have a natural father during His sojourn on earth, but only a natural mother. Hence, as our Faith teaches us, Saint Joseph is not the natural parent, but merely the legal father of the Redeemer.
Without its being on this account a mere empty title, the fatherhood of Saint Joseph embraces the glory of virginal integrity, and thus lays claim to a new mark of resemblance to the Fatherhood of God. The heavenly Father has given to the saint’s fatherhood all that He could without detriment to his virginity. Moreover, the fatherhood of Saint Joseph resembles that of the eternal Father because both have but one Son, in fact, the same Son. How admirably and gloriously the fatherhood of the saint shines forth in comparison with that of the first Person of the Blessed Trinity! Because of his virginal fatherhood, artists frequently depict Saint Joseph holding the lily in his hand.
The third mark of resemblance of Saint Joseph’s fatherhood to that of God the Father is love. It was love, not nature, that made our saint the father of Christ. God the Father comprehends with supreme complacence His only-begotten Son as the substantial, infinitely perfect, and infinitely lovable image of His nature and essence, and begets Him continually, according to the words of the Psalmist: “My son art Thou, this day have I begotten Thee” (Ps. 2:7). In fact, each time the voice of the eternal Father resounds from the cloud that hovers over the Savior, He calls Him His “well-beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17; Luke 9:35; 2 Pet. 1:17).
Joseph is indeed but the shadow of the heavenly Father; yet the accents of love that God the Father addressed to Christ through Joseph, His earthly representative, were not a lifeless sound, but such an expression of love from a heart of flesh and blood as no other father could have for his child. Once we grant that God wished to give His Son an earthly father, we cannot conceive His selecting any other than one possessed of the truest, deepest, sincerest love.
Hence, together with His authority He bestowed on Saint Joseph something of His infinite love for His divine Son; indeed, the measure of love bestowed amply compensated the saint for what was wanting in natural fatherhood. Just as God the Father, in giving Mary His Son, furnished her in a manner with His divine love, so, too, in due proportion did He favor Saint Joseph. The latter gave abundant proof of the greatness, depth, and intensity of his love, not only in words and feelings, but in deeds and toils and sacrifices of all sorts. The virginal purity of his fatherhood was no hindrance to his love; on the contrary, if ever a heart can be capable of and strong in love, it is a pure, virginal heart that, freed from all obstacles, mounts to God, the highest good. So strong in fact was the love in the heart of Saint Joseph that it is supposed to have eventually consumed his very life.
A Reflection of the Father
We see, then, that Saint Joseph is a sublime, venerable, amiable reflection of the eternal Father. His fatherhood is indisputably one of the most charming and lovely of God’s thoughts, one of the most touching of God’s manifestations to man. The divine Child in the fatherly arms of Saint Joseph is the visible appearance of the unbegotten Father and the only-begotten Son, of the Son sent into this world and of the Father not sent.
In the residence of Saint Joseph, Jesus, the Sun of Justice, and Mary obeyed his word. Saint Joseph alone could lay claim to this honor. Only for him has God the Father reserved this high dignity. “I am the Lord; I will not give my glory to another” (Isa. 42:8).
If something still can and ought to be added to this portrait of Saint Joseph, it should be done here. The saint is the representative of the heavenly Father. Above all, he is a father in the highest acceptance of the term. He is a father to our Savior; to Mary, as regards his outward relationship to her, he is hardly more than a father. Therefore, his chief characteristic is his fatherhood, with all the qualities that adorn it: quiet of mind and reflection, unselfishness, faithfulness, and inexhaustible love.
Thus, in the Gospel story we meet Saint Joseph as the very essence of imperturbable calm in the midst of all sorts of terrors, as the very presence of mind itself in exciting contingencies, as utter meekness and patience in torturing cares, as the very image of wonderful simplicity and unpretentiousness while adorned with the most signal marks of predilection and prerogatives of honor, as the most accommodating charity and unchangeable fortitude in the fulfillment of duty.
By means of these admirable and attractive characteristics, the saint presents to us an image of the heavenly Father, who in the triune Godhead is the type of Divine Providence ruling from end to end calmly and mightily.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Meschler’s book, The Truth about Saint Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints. It is available from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.