Who Was Saint Joseph?
You may well be familiar with the phrase ‘finding God in all things’ - often associated with Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Partly it’s about seeing God in the beauty of creation. It’s also about recognising the many ways that God speaks to us. Although Saint Joseph lived sixteen-hundred years before Ignatius, he seems to have taken this idea to heart. Joseph recognised God speaking to him and acted on what he heard.
Fragments of Light
What we know about Saint Joseph comes from brief mentions of him in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Imagine trying to sum up your own life in about five hundred words. For such an important figure the lack of detail can be frustrating. The result of this has often been the use of ‘poetic license’.
Pieces of Poetry
Two attributes commonly associated with Saint Joseph are that he was a carpenter, and that he was significantly older than his wife Mary.
It would be wrong to say that Joseph definitely wasn’t a carpenter. However, the word used in the original greek of the gospels is more accurately translated as ‘artisan’ - skilled manual worker. Indeed, on the 1st of May we celebrate Saint Joseph the Worker.
In Saint John’s account of the crucifixion he tells us the following:
Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’. Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother’. And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.
It is noticeable that there is no mention of Joseph. Because of this it is thought that he had already died - presumably due to his great age. Most of the artwork depicting Joseph reflects this by showing him with grey hair.
Seeds of Salvation
Even in modern Israel there are still cases where young women are killed because they have become pregnant outside marriage. The stoning to death of ‘adulterers’ was all the more common two thousand years ago. In this light Joseph’s initial intention to ‘divorce Mary quietly’ is quite revealing. It’s probably fair to say that most men, finding their financé pregnant by another, would feel angry and humiliated. In a hot-headed moment they might want revenge.
In Saint Matthew’s gospel we get this account of what happened next:
He had made up his mind to do this when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’
We take this for granted because it’s so familiar - Joseph decided to marry Mary on the basis of a dream.
Joseph’s role as protector was possibly even more crucial after Jesus was born.
Herod was furious when he realised that he had been outwitted by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or under.
However, before that:
The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt.
Again, we’re probably over-familiar with this - Joseph took Mary and the child Jesus to another country on the basis of a dream. Of course we imagine this dream in Hollywood film style, but the gospel doesn’t make it seem anything out of the ordinary.
After Herod’s death Joseph is told in a dream to take Jesus back to the land of Israel. Fearing Herod’s son Archelaus - the new ruler of Judaea - he went rather to Nazareth in the region of Galilee. This fulfilled the words of the prophets:
He will be called a Nazarene.
Acts of Bravery
In our own time then, how does God speak to us? In the silence? Through other people? In the scriptures? Saint Ignatius would say all three, as well as through our dreams. What he would also say is that it takes time to be able to recognise God’s voice.
Saint Joseph was clearly an expert. So much depended on him making the right decision at the right time, and he did.