We know from the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah in Genesis 24 that God is a Matchmaker. But how can you find a husband suitable for someone who was (1) conceived without sin, (2) would become the Mother of God, and (3) destined to be coronated as the Queen of Heaven, being made preeminent over all the angels and saints?
Such a husband, though not equal in stature with her, would have to be pretty special himself. God would not match Our Lady with mediocrity.
Though there are not many biblical references concerning him, and though he never utters a word in the Gospel accounts, Joseph truly emerges as a saint. His life was grace-filled in its own way, his holiness like one of the great men of the Old Covenant whose life was guided, guarded, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Roots Of St. Joseph’s Greatness
Luke sums up Joseph’s and Mary’s sanctity in the presentation of Christ in the temple: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Luke 2:39; emphasis mine). This obedience leads one to believe that the holy family also would obey any divinely-inspired oral traditions (Mt. 23:3) that were part of the ancient Hebrew religion.
Saint Joseph’s greatness was, therefore, rooted in God, fed and nourished by Scripture and Tradition and all the particulars of religious life under the Old Covenant. He was a forerunner of today’s practicing Catholic, who is submitted to the teaching of the Magisterium and fully participates in the sacramental and devotional life of the Church.
Psalm 1:1-3 provides a wonderful description of such a person:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”
The Fruit Of Saint Joseph’s Greatness
These roots made Joseph an exemplary father, spouse, tradesman, and servant of God. This essay will spotlight his greatness as a spouse in four particular areas. This is by no means an exhaustive list but merely a conversation-starter.
The biblical narrative tells us that Joseph, when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Mt. 1:19). Joseph was a wonderful husband because he was a righteous man and incarnated this directive:
“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). All of the references to Joseph in the Gospels betray a pattern of virtue and obedience to the written and spoken word of God.
Mary and Joseph’s marriage was exemplary because they were both animated by the same values and virtues rooted in their relationship to God. When couples are not on the same page in this crucial area, it can significantly damage or even end the relationship.
Perhaps the wife is a devout Catholic who wants to give money to her local parish and alms to a charitable organization while her husband, an agnostic, wants to spend that money on some unnecessary luxury. She wants her children to have religious training, go to a good Catholic school, and not associate with unsavory kids in the neighborhood while he is apathetic at best on all three issues.
Joseph was a model husband because he was other-centered and a servant-leader. His life was sacrificial: he protected his wife and baby from Herod, provided for them through his trade, passed that trade on to Jesus, and, in general, led through service.
Jesus would tell his disciples that “the Son of Man came to serve, not be served.” His Mother and foster-father modeled this for him in his upbringing.
Over and over I see the opposite trait in different families. Perhaps the husband grew up with unmet emotional needs (e.g., feeling loved, accepted, not alone) in his family of origin and then looks to his wife and kids to meet those needs.
His modus operandi is to get not to give; his agenda is not to serve but be served. The biblical model becomes inverted and his wife and kids become little gods, from whom he seeks to extract his own inner fulfillment: people make lousy gods.
Joseph was an ideal spouse because he had realistic expectations. You see this when he didn’t lose his poise during the threat of Herod and the subsequent flight to Egypt.
Saint Joseph had a biblical world-view rooted in Scripture. He knew that we live in a fallen world populated by fallen human beings, save for his wife and foster-son.
It’s not a world of white-picket fences and storybook endings where all our dreams come true; no, it’s a soul-making world where God is transforming us, often through affliction, to make us ready for life in the world to come. Purgatory now so we don’t have to go through Purgatory (or Hell) later.
Over and over, I’ve seen spouses enter marriages with unrealistic expectations. They expect life to be “X” and the real world comes tumbling short of their dreams.
They become offended and want out of the marriage and many who are Christians return to their pre-Christian, worldly lifestyle. It’s much like the children of Israel who found life difficult in the wilderness and wanted to return to Egypt.
Saint Joseph was an excellent husband because his life was not governed by his feelings. Again, as a righteous man, his life was more about doing the right thing in the moment, whether it was as provider, protector, or servant of God.
From getting up in the morning at 6 a.m. to taking the trash down to the curb at 9 p.m. so much of our lives we don’t feel like doing. In this way, we imitate the Passion of the Son of God, who didn’t feel like dying for the sins of the world and asked his Father to “let this cup pass.”
When couples are courting or engaged, they often experience an emotional high that is related to brain chemistry. Six months later that high has leveled off quite a bit.
God, in his infinite wisdom knew that, like a rocket ship needing a large initial blast of energy to get the spacecraft in orbit, so couples also need this explosion at the beginning to send them off on the experience of marriage. But as the feelings wane, mature spouses understand the old adage: “Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will.”
This is why our culture’s tendency to deify feelings and dominant message of “Follow your heart” is so damaging. Feelings are all well and good (“I feel like listening to jazz not classical”) but could you imagine Joseph saying, “I don’t feel like working today and supporting my family; I need to take a break and embark on a journey of self-discovery.”
Imitating the Passion
Christ had his Passion and we have our ours. Indeed, it seems that the demands of life are set up in such a way that we are forced, if we are saintly men like Joseph, to imitate the Passion.
We die a little bit each day. The alarm going off at 5 a.m., the traffic jam on the way to work and the guy who cut you off, the whining co-worker, the boss who puts you in no-win scenarios, the after-dinner dishes you do because your wife has a splitting headache.
If we are a piano, the music we play is the thoughts, words, and deeds of our life. Wikipedia tells us that “Common tools for tuning pianos include the tuning lever or ‘hammer’, a variety of mutes, and a tuning fork or electronic tuning device.”
Husbands should let the primary tuning instrument for their life be the Passion of Christ. May we imitate his self-donation and sacrifice; may we celebrate it in the Lord’s Supper and have it shape and influence everything we do.