There are two people who could best provide a description of St. Joseph: Jesus, who always called him “dad” and experienced human fatherhood in his arms, and Mary, who called him “my husband Joseph.”
Mary does not mention Joseph explicitly in Scripture. She only refers to him after Jesus was lost and was found in the Temple: “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”
Joseph is always mentioned in the third person, which can lead us to perceive him more as a character in a chronicle than a living person, with feelings and experiences. But for Mary, Joseph was much more than what is written in the Gospels – he was her husband, Jesus’ adoptive father, the man who experienced with her the events of family life. She knew Joseph’s heart and feelings. She knew how he prayed, suffered, had fun, and even what his favorite meal was and the unique ways in which he treated her.
The Gospel tells us that Mary was a contemplative woman who would ponder things in her heart, constantly seeking to understand the deeper meaning of events (cf. Lk 2:19; 2,5,10). Mary’s perspective was based on God’s centeredness in her heart.
I picture Mary at home in Nazareth attentively looking at Joseph as he plays with the child Jesus, as he works hard in the woodshop or as he prays in the synagogue. Mary’s gaze was probably full of appreciation and gratitude for the man who accepted her, defended her, protected her and accompanied her in the upheavals they experienced together.
She saw how Joseph was sorrowful, afflicted, humanly devastated and suffering in silence when he discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. She saw the peaceful look in his face as he told her what the Angel said to him in a dream. Mary silently saw the restlessness with which her young husband looked for an inn as his wife was about to give birth. Mary witnessed the fear and affliction in Joseph’s face when he realized that someone was out to kill the son he was entrusted to protect as a father. Needless to say, she also observed his frightened expression after hearing that their son would be a sign of contradiction and that she would be pierced with a sword. Likewise, she contemplated Joseph’s distress after losing their son in the crowd. Mary spent many days and many hours looking at Joseph, her husband, pondering in her heart the mystery of his soul. But none of her words about Joseph are recorded in the Gospels.
Thus, in order to discover the story of Joseph, as told by Mary, we must turn to her contemplative and quiet heart, which tells us about Joseph’s soul through the events they lived together. Mary was able to understand deeply the goodness and suffering of her betrothed, who had embraced her with respect and love, knowing that for him this involved the end of the life he had dreamed of – a married life with children, like everyone else’s. In silence, she saw him accept with faith the God’s plan, by marrying a most pure wife and welcoming a divine adoptive child.
When a wife is asked to describe her husband, it’s not unusual for her to respond: “My husband? He’s a good man.” Perhaps Mary’s response wouldn’t have been very different: “My husband Joseph? He’s a good man.” This response may seem too simplistic and short, because we think Joseph should be described with more sophisticated adjectives: “holy, extraordinary, exceptional…” Yet Mary’s response, after contemplating Joseph for so long, would highlight what perhaps defines him best: his goodness. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Lk 18:19). Mary experienced the goodness in Joseph’s heart through his embrace, his eyes, his words, his care, his natural tenderness towards her and the child. She could rightly say, “My husband is the best man in the world.” While this might seem like a very ordinary way of defining him, Mary’s words would fully echo God’s goodness present in the heart of a pure and sincere man. They lived a married life in the highest expression: in a most pure mutual self-gift, faithful to God’s plan.
If asked to elaborate, Mary would probably say that Joseph was a good father. During her pregnancy, at Jesus’ birth, at the Temple, and in the ordinary events and upheavals in life, Joseph was always present to his wife and child, with that constant and provident presence that denotes a true fatherhood. This is precisely how Jesus defines his heavenly Father when he says, “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone” (Jn 8:29). Jesus says that he and his Father are one. In his humanity, Jesus learned that being a father implies being always present for one’s children, protecting them and letting them know they are never alone in life. “With a father’s heart: that is how Joseph loved Jesus” – thus Pope Francis begins his Apostolic Letter “With a Father’s Heart,” written for the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph’s declaration as Patron of the Universal Church. Jesus learned and experienced from Joseph what the heart feels when the word “father” is said.
Fatherhood creates a connection in which the child identifies with the father based on the time spent together and on the example that the father provides for the child and the child tries to imitate. The father achieves this connection through hard work and the attention and the time he dedicates to his child.
Mary saw Joseph’s fortitude in spirit and maturity when, with a broken heart, he decided to leave in secret as to not put her to shame. He must have been a strong man, both physically and morally, in order to bear the demands that taking care of Mary and the child entailed: the mysterious pregnancy, the unexpected travels and their harshness, poverty, attacks from those in power, hard work, migration to an unknown land… Mary knew she could count on him, a man of deep integrity, a responsible, strong man. Perhaps she would have described Joseph as such.
While it’s true that Mary never said Joseph was a “good man,” a “good father,” a “strong man of deep integrity,” the Gospel story tells us that Mary felt cared for, understood, protected, defended, accompanied, sustained in life by Joseph, because of who he was; and that Jesus, his son, was the type of man that he was, precisely because of his fatherly presence, his example and the qualities Jesus learned from him.
In the aforementioned letter, Pope Francis reminds us that “our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history.” Thus “each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”
Joseph lived the mystery of his wife Mary and the mystery of his son Jesus without seeing wonders or witnessing miracles, praises and crowds. He lived in the presence of God, incarnate in his son, fulfilling his duties as a husband and father. This was his indispensable service to the work of salvation. St. Paul VI says that Joseph “made a total gift of himself, his life and his work, by making his human vocation of domestic love a total sacrifice of self, a sacrifice of his heart and of his full capability to love at the service the Messiah born under his care” (Homily, March 19, 1966). His vocation was “domestic love,” that is, the vocation of loving the child who played and grew under his paternal gaze with his whole self.
Referring to the book The Shadow of the Father by Jan Dobraczyński, Pope Francis says that the author “uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” A shadow is not something that usually catches our attention – it’s simply something we enjoy. Rarely do we lift up our eyes to see where a pleasant shadow is coming from. But when a child lifts up his eyes, he notices that the shadow comes from his father.
Many of us love St. Joseph very much and have great devotion to him. Perhaps what the Gospel refers to when it describes Joseph as a just man (Mt 1:19) is precisely his humility, which defines him as a good man, an excellent husband and a wonderful father. St. Joseph is our brother, who, in the ordinary and everyday life, shows us the purity, beauty and holiness of fatherhood and married life in God’s plan.