Holy Family — St Joseph

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke 2:41-52

Yesterday was Christmas Day. The Advent season has passed and creche scenes around the world are filled with the figures of the Holy Family. Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying on a bed of straw in a manger. Mary, kneeling beside him with the glow of maternal love. And Joseph, watching over them and protecting them. So much has been written about Mary, despite the fact that the gospels tell us very little about her. We know even less about Joseph; Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention him at all, and John’s just twice. Although he was honoured as early as the 9thcentury as “guardian of the Lord,” there were no churches named for St Joseph until the 13th century. He is an important part of God’s plan for salvation, and he is a model for all Christians, especially husbands and fathers, which makes him the most important male saint who ever lived, and yet all we know for sure is that he was a carpenter from Nazareth.

God chose Joseph to be the protector of, literally, Himself. Joseph no doubt felt unworthy, but the gospels show us his character, and he was called by God just as Mary was. His feast day is March 19; in addition, in 1956, Pope Pius 12 designated May 1 as the Feast of St. Joseph the craftsman. Pope Francis dedicated the year 2021 to Saint Joseph to mark the 150th anniversary of his declaration as the patron saint of the universal church. In addition, he is the patron of expectant mothers, fathers, workers, travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers and Canada; our largest church is Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.

Tradition tells us that Joseph was much older than Mary. This we don’t know for sure, but given Mary’s young age, he might well have been chosen for his maturity and ability to be a protector of Jesus and Mary. We do know he was poor, because when he and Mary went to the temple to present Jesus, they could not afford a lamb, and instead bought two doves. Yet despite his humble life, he was descended from King David. We assume he died before Jesus began His public ministry because we hear nothing more about him after the lection presented today. That he had died before the crucifixion is evidenced by the fact that Joseph of Arimathea replaced him in the role he would have traditionally held. Furthermore, if he had been living, Jesus would not have entrusted His mother to John’s care. For that reason, Joseph is also the patron saint of happy death, because he most likely died in the arms of Jesus and Mary.

After the annunciation, the angel did not appear again to Mary, but he did appear to Joseph in dreams – more than once. We have no record in any of the gospels of Joseph’s words, only his actions. And from his actions, we can put together a very good picture of the kind of man he was.

We see Joseph’s great compassion when he found out Mary was pregnant. They were betrothed, which was legally binding, much different than a modern engagement. In accordance to the Law of Moses, Joseph could have had her stoned, but he chose to have her quietly sent away rather than publicly humiliated. Matthew calls him a “just man.” In the first angelic revelation, God tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary into his home as his wife, as her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Was it at this moment that Joseph realized he – like Mary – had been chosen by God? 

This happened sometime before the census decree of Augustus Caesar. All citizens were to return to the town of their ancestry, which for Mary and Joseph was Bethlehem. All attention is on Mary, but imagine Joseph, faced with the birth of the baby in the most unlikely (and unsanitary) place, most likely so caught up in what was happening that he momentarily forgot that this baby was the Son of God. When did the realization strike him? Did he bow down and worship his newborn?

From that moment on, Joseph assumed the role of protector of the young Christ child, just as he had protected Mary before His birth. This is no more evident than when Herod issued orders that all children under the age of two were to be killed. God intervened. Again, the angel visited Joseph in his dreams; Mary and the infant Jesus were in the best possible human hands, as Joseph led them in the middle of the night out of Herod’s jurisdiction, toward Egypt. They would have taken the Via Maris, a coastal road, called “the way of the sea,” into the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, which was Egyptian-controlled territory. From there, it is likely that they travelled westward to Alexandria, where there was a large Jewish colony. The overall distance was about 300 miles, which meant it would have taken about two weeks of Joseph walking while leading Mary and Jesus on the donkey. Another message from the angel told Joseph when it was safe for them to return home, as Herod had died. 

Joseph had all the authority of an earthly father as he raised the young child, but he never forgot that the true father of Jesus was God. We see in today’s lection the only biblical example of the contrast. In recognition of Joseph’s position as head of the home, Mary says, “your father and I have been searching for you,” to which Jesus replied, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Yet, even though Jesus is aware of His heavenly parentage, He respects Joseph and obeys him, just as Joseph obeys God. This is the last mention of Joseph in any of the gospels.

It is fitting that Joseph became the patron saint of the church, because he lends his protection over the church, just as he protected Jesus. Likewise, he is the patron saint of unborn children and expectant mothers. He is also the patron of refugees and immigrants; 2000 years ago he experienced what many families in today’s world do: the desperate need to move his young family from their home to safety in another country.

In recent times, it has become a practice to bury a statue of St Joseph when selling your home, and to dig him up and give him a place of honour in your new home. This man of great faith and wisdom is the patron saint of carpenters, husbands and fathers. He was the model of care and compassion toward his wife and young son. Joseph’s character shows strength, devotion, selflessness, patience, humility. He is often pictured with a lily on his staff, a symbol of integrity. Joseph lived his life of integrity in love and service, and in that way, he is a role model for all of us. But most of all, he lived a simple life.

Due to the pandemic, simplicity has been the nature of Christmas again, for the second year in a row. Naturally, some have grumbled and complained about smaller gatherings, but there are also those who realize that a simpler Christmas is more like the first Christmas. A simple stable, the setting for the most important birth in history. A manger, the cradle for the most important baby born in history, his mother a simple young girl, the wife of a carpenter.

No matter how simple our lives or how insignificant we may feel, God sees integrity in each of us, just as He did in Joseph, and calls us to do things we feel unworthy to do. That’s how God works. He gave Joseph a unique task – to be the earthly father of the Saviour. The man God trusted to protect young Jesus was just a carpenter from Nazareth, and yet all we know about Joseph is all we need to know.

We enter a new year – 2022 – with uncertainty. Joseph was no stranger to uncertainty as he embarked on his role as protector of the Christ child. His faith and his integrity helped him overcome all obstacles as he lived out his calling, and we are called to follow his example as we live out our own callings and face uncertainty in our futures.

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