Our third and final model for Advent living is none other than St. Joseph.
St. Joseph is hailed by Catholics as the patron of a happy death, of fathers, of workers, of the Universal Church. That’s quite a mouthful. On what is such a lofty evaluation based? In all honesty, Joseph is mentioned in but a few passages of the New Testament; he is described by only one adjective in all of Sacred Scripture – dikaios, variously translated as “just,” “righteous,” “upright,” even “holy” – all rooted in the Hebrew word zadek, which embodies all of these meanings.
Our usual understanding of justice is rather truncated – limited to a kind of quid pro quo approach to human relations and even to the God-man relationship. This view comes about from the philosophical definition of justice as “giving to each his due.” While this is certainly an accurate explanation, it is merely a starting point. The Old Testament reveals Almighty God as the epitome of justice but equally the summit of mercy. In our human way of looking at reality, justice and mercy are mutually exclusive; in God, they are co-extensive and complementary. For instance, when a mother is confronted with her son’s misdeed, she seems bound to one of two courses: She can punish him as he deserves (justice), or forgive and forget (mercy). God is not bound by such restrictions because for Him, justice is mercy and mercy is justice. As St. Paul realized, God’s justice justifies, that is, it makes someone right or just before Him. Like being in the sun, unless one deliberately blocks the rays, one gets tanned ipso facto.
In what does justice consist? In thinking correct thoughts, which is to say, using the divine standard in judging human affairs. Small-minded people mistake rigorism for justice, but divine justice is illustrated in an incident like Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery, saying, “Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:10). That same version of justice was exhibited by Joseph when, even imagining the worst, he was nonetheless “unwilling to expose [Mary] to shame” (Mt 1:19). That is magnanimity or greatness of soul, which judges but is not judgmental. Joseph was open to data other than circumstantial evidence. He was more ready to excuse than accuse. St. Joseph was one of those few men who judge themselves more harshly than they judge others.
Scripture tells us that Joseph was privy to angelic communications on three occasions (the annunciation regarding Mary’s state; the order to flee into Egypt; the direction to return to Palestine). After being told not to be afraid (cf. Mt 1:20) and truly internalizing the message of the Angel, in each instance Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Mt 1:24). He was a man of action, decisive and resourceful, who never dilly-dallied, so that we are told pointedly, “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt” (Mt 2:14). God had spoken, and that was sufficient. So often people want God’s Word to them confirmed in hundreds of ways, going through a lengthy process of discernment, generally used as a pious cover for inaction. No, when the God of the Bible commands personally or through His messengers, He expects (indeed, demands) an obedience which is total and immediate. In that sense Joseph was the perfect partner for Mary, who was imbued with the very same qualities. Of course, truth be told, that is the only kind of person God can work with, in order to achieve His purposes here on earth.
Several times the New Testament tells us that people referred to Jesus as the “son of Joseph.” What we know from Divine Revelation, obviously the people of the neighborhood did not know, but Jesus had more than Joseph’s name and legal patrimony; He also grew up under Joseph’s strong, silent witness of faith, providing Jesus (humanly speaking) with the masculine living out of the virtues which His holy Mother demonstrated so perfectly in a feminine manner. We sometimes forget that children need both parents to portray the Christian life; otherwise, they come away from the home with a distorted image of how men and women relate or do not relate to God: “Religion is women’s work.” “Religious people never show emotion.” “Religion is sentimental.” Therefore, the Son of Mary according to the flesh and the Son of Joseph according to the Law had the benefit of seeing virtue practiced by a holy woman and a holy man – gifts every child deserves and needs.
The hiddenness of Joseph is something which paralleled Mary’s quiet pursuit of holiness, attempting to learn day by day God’s Will for her and for her Son. There is never a big splash in Joseph’s life – no craving for headlines, no domination, no unreal demands or expectations, just simple and complete conformity to the divine purpose. St. Joseph performed the tasks assigned to him by his profession and by his extraordinary vocation to be the putative father of the Messiah. Content with life in the shadows, Joseph stands as a fine example to human fathers as to how they should lead their children to and through a life of holiness. While Joseph undoubtedly shared the insights of his trade with the young Jesus, he wasn’t distraught to discover that the Boy wouldn’t or couldn’t “follow in Daddy’s footsteps” but instead had to be about His Heavenly Father’s business (cf. Lk 2:49). Having served Christ so well on earth, no wonder, then, that Joseph is given the care of Christ’s Mystical Body the Church as his special charge in glory.
What examples does he offer through his actions?
• Joseph points us all toward an intimacy beyond the sexual, even though that is good and holy within the covenant of marriage.
• He demonstrates the value of work, which makes us “co-creators” with God, giving his trade to Jesus, so that He is rightly called “the carpenter’s Son.” As John Paul II notes in Redemptoris Custos, “Work was the daily expression of love” in the home at Nazareth.
• Joseph is a witness to the sanctification of daily life, like Thérèse of Lisieux centuries later, doing the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well.
• His spirituality, rooted in his relationship with Jesus and Mary, and his strength of character enabled him to make great decisions with equally great confidence.
• He exemplified the classical quality of pietas, so admired by the ancient Romans and summed up for the Jews in being “a just man.” That is the virtue of religion [how one is and ought to be bound to God], shown forth in devotion, readiness of will, and submission to God.
• Joseph was the very exemplar of both filial and paternal love: By being a true son of God, he was able to be a true father to the Father’s Son.
• He united in an integrated way contemplation and action: What was presented to him in holy dreams and what he then reflected upon, he translated into action.
• Joseph lived as a kind of proto-model of the evangelical counsels: poverty – materialism held no sway over him; chastity – his sexuality was under control; obedience – it was God’s way, not his, that mattered.
• St. Joseph is the preeminent model of manhood and fatherhood, so desperately needed in our world, in the throes of a veritable crisis of masculinity. Unfortunately, the contemporary Church hasn’t helped much in this area as men are so often marginalized in ecclesial life, frequently made to feel guilty even for being men, and with few exclusively male groups or activities to offer them guidance and support. There is much value and need for an essentially fatherless society like ours to turn to St. Joseph, who succeeded so well at being a man’s man (but not in any silly, superficial machismo-like fashion) and, on that very score, succeeded in serving as an ideal father. He offers an especially powerful witness for men today as no lust; no unbridled passion; no turning of persons into objects for personal gratification ever clouded his relationship to his holy spouse.
Finally, this just man is invoked by the Church as the patron of a happy death. Some might regard the expression as somewhat morbid, but that could be so only for a committed secularist. Death can and should be a happy experience for a believer, and once more St. Joseph comes to the fore as a paradigm of how one should die. First, one dies a happy death by living a holy, just life. Second, one lives and dies in the company of Jesus and Mary. This model of Christian manliness recommends himself to us not for the strange or exciting things he did (because he really didn’t) but for the daily listening to and heeding the voice of Almighty God – in the home, in the synagogue and Temple, in the workplace. With hindsight, we can appreciate fully why God chose Joseph to establish what Vatican II would later call “the domestic Church,” the first locus of salvation for Christians.
Sincere but rare praise is reserved for this just man, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father of Jesus. With Mary, he lived that first Advent to the full; under his guidance and through his intercession, we can repeat the process.