Joseph and the Rediscovery of Love

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project“Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

The Bible tells us little about St. Joseph, but what it does tell us is a magnificent example of this principle.


Joseph was betrothed to Mary. The Jewish betrothal ceremony had more weight than our engagement; they were effectively married, just awaiting the moving-in ceremony. Yet when he found her “with child through the Holy Spirit,” Joseph decided to send her away. (Our imprecise modern translations say, “divorce,” but the Greek is more like, “set her loose.”) The first thing we can see is that the coming of Jesus confused Joseph’s plans.

Reading quickly, we sometimes mistake Joseph’s motives – and in the process, we mistake the strength of their relationship. Perhaps he thought Mary had been with another man. But surely no one who knew Mary would think that.

Rather, it says that he found her with child through the Holy Spirit. The text allows us – and the context compels us – to think he knew the child was divine. He sent her away not because he thought she was bad, but because he thought she was too good for him. It says he wanted to send her away because he was righteous; like any righteous Jew, he did not dare step into the sanctuary, knowing he was unworthy to see the face of God.

Indeed, the scandal of Mary is that God has come far too close. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t seem possible. So we pretend that Jesus is either less than God or less than truly human. To recognize that Mary is truly the mother of God is to explode our minds. Joseph, being holy, didn’t deny the truth – but he stepped away from it.

Thus the angel has to say, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (And we must be told, as well, not to be afraid to welcome Mary into our homes.) Joseph is afraid – but the angel reminds him of his own messianic dignity.


The angel tells Joseph of the role he must play: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph is the namer. He did not conceive the child, but he is to act as the father.

And he is to name Jesus savior – not destroyer. On the one hand, Jesus seems to upend Joseph’s plans. Like Abraham, Joseph must set off on a trajectory he never expected.

But in losing his life, Joseph rediscovers it. Naming Jesus points to how personal Joseph’s vocation will be. Children need parents – not just institutions – because they need to be known personally, to be known by name (not just by number). Joseph’s fatherly role is beautifully outlined in the naming of Jesus.

And Joseph is to be husband of Mary. We have a strange idea of ancient marriage, as if they didn’t even know their spouses. But though sin has always gotten in the way, marriage has always been about love and relationship. Children need marriage because they need to experience those personal relationships, to grow up in a context of inter-personal love.

The Bible portrays the first marriage, the marriage of Adam and Eve, as a delight, a discovery of another self and an end to the loneliness of being surrounded by mere animals. The Old Testament portrays marriage as the ultimate image of the love of God for his people, a love which is the opposite of betrayal and infidelity. I agree with the tradition that says the Song of Songs is about God and his people, not about human marriage – but regardless, it portrays marriage as profound being-in-love.

And when Jesus gives the grace to restore marriage – a grace given preeminently to his mother – it results in a love like his own. The only commandment to the Bride is to love.

Joseph wasn’t ignorant of Mary. She wasn’t some stranger that he suspected of adultery. She was his best friend. In the story of the Finding in the Temple, Mary can speak for Joseph’s heart: “your father and I have looked for you, greatly distressed” (Luke 2:48).


Jesus is savior. He comes to restore, not to destroy. He calls Joseph, yes, to give up his life. Like any marriage, he must give himself unreservedly to his wife, to his child, and to God. In this marriage, he will have to give himself even more radically, as evidenced in his fear to go forward.

But the angel tells him not to be afraid. In giving his life, he finds it again, in laying it down he rediscovers all the riches of love: the love of husband and wife, the love of father and son, the love of friendship, the love of God.

Where is St. Joseph in your devotional life?

(For more meditations like the above, check out Fr. Mary-Dominique Philippe’s exquisite The Mystery of Joseph. (aff))

St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectMarch 19, the feast of St. Joseph: deep in Lent.  But more to the point, a week before the Annunciation.  Recall what we said at the beginning of Lent: the real deepest mystery here is not the Cross, but the Incarnation, God-with-us.  God has entered into our life, with all its sufferings.  The Cross is the fulfillment, but the Incarnation is the beginning – and indeed, if God does not fill man with his presence, the suffering of the Cross is meaningless.

In short, it is right, here, deep in Lent, leading up to Good Friday, to have a little reminder of Christmas.  Emmanuel: God is with us.!

So a few Biblical reflections on St. Joseph, largely culled from a Christmas sermon by Msgr. Ronald Knox.


“Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  At first glance, and in most of our translations, the picture we get is this: Joseph is law-abiding.  He finds out his betrothed is pregnant, presumably by another man.  He wants none of her – but fortunately the angel convinces him it’s okay.

Did Joseph really distrust Mary?  Was Joseph, the “just man,” that obtuse?  Was Mary’s goodness so unclear that he thought she was sleeping around?

As happens surprisingly often, the King James is a more literal, better, translation: “not willing to make her a publick example, he was minded to put her away privily.”

First: the word is not necessarily “divorce.”  (How could he divorce someone he hadn’t married?)  The Greek is more like “let her loose,” send her away.

His reasoning – not willing to “put her to shame” or “make her a publick example” – is a Greek word that just means he doesn’t want everyone looking at her.  Far from publicly rejecting her (which a divorce would surely have done), to the contrary, he wants to get her out of sight, to preserve her dignity.  This is from Matthew, but it’s interesting that in Luke, she runs away to her cousin’s house for six months.

The just man knows the dignity of Mary, and wants to preserve it.  The just man wants to do it all right.


The angel tells Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus.”  Joseph has a task.  Joseph is the namer.  He is not the biological father, but he does need to act as foster father.  The genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew has just given, traces his descent from King David through Joseph.

Msgr. Knox points out something funny about the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Today, a census determines how many people are in each house on a given day.  But back then, the census was done genealogically.  What Joseph needed to do was to go at some point to Bethlehem – to City Hall, as it were – and say, “I am Joseph, the son of Jacob son of Matthan; I live in Nazareth with my wife Miriam and one child.”

But that picture of the census changes the story a bit.  It’s not clear Mary even needed to go to Bethlehem with him.  There’s no indication in the text – and lots of indications to the contrary in the history – that Joseph needed to be there on a particular day.  In short, it was not Caeasar’s fault that they were in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth.  It was Joseph’s choice.

But Joseph is the namer, and the descendent of David – how proud a lineage!  How much he might have considered the importance of his task!  No, it’s not an unfortunate accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Joseph wanted that to happen.  The just man, attentive to detail, made it so.  He wanted everything to be just right.


Finally, if there was no mad rush for everyone to be in Bethlehem on December 25, the “no room for him in the inn” looks a little different.  Translated literally, it says, “there was no place for him at the journey’s end.”  Or as John says, “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

When the heir of David came home, it was not the busy inn that turned him away.  It was his friends and relations who made no space for him – or had nothing better to offer Joseph and Mary than the shed where they kept the cattle.

I don’t think it bothered Joseph and Mary much: they had Jesus.  They did “receive him, and believed in his name.”


This Lent and Holy Week, let us imitate St. Joseph.  Let us receive Christ, make him the best space we can, do our best to love his holy name.  Let us welcome him into our human family, and accept the poverty and work and suffering that come with him, not so much because God wants us to suffer as because we count the suffering as nothing, for the joy of being with Jesus.

Are there earthly comforts you value more than the presence of God in your life?

Pope Francis on St. Joseph the Sleeper

Speaking to families in the Philippines, Pope Francis gave this little meditation on St. Joseph.  I love it!  The basic organization is: Joseph sleeps; Joseph rises; Joseph gives witness.  And we families should be like Joseph!


pope francisThe Scriptures seldom speak of Saint Joseph, but when they do, we often find him resting, as an angel reveals God’s will to him in his dreams. In the Gospel passage we have just heard, we find Joseph resting not once, but twice. . . .

It is important to dream in the family. All mothers and fathers dream of their sons and daughters in the womb for 9 months. They dream of how they will be. It isn’t possible to have a family without such dreams. When you lose this capacity to dream you lose the capacity to love, the capacity to love is lost. I recommend that at night when you examine your consciences, ask yourself if you dreamed of the future of your sons and daughters. Did you dream of your husband or wife? Did you dream today of your parents, your grandparents who carried forward the family to you? It is so important to dream and especially to dream in the family. Please don’t lose the ability to dream in this way. How many solutions are found to family problems if we take time to reflect, if we think of a husband or wife, and we dream about the good qualities they have. Don’t ever lose the memory of when you were boyfriend or girlfriend. That is very important.

annunciation-to-josephJoseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him. In this moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us. He speaks to us in the reading we have just heard, in our prayer and witness, and in the quiet of our hearts. Let us reflect on what the Lord is saying to us, especially in this evening’s Gospel. There are three aspects of this passage which I would ask you to consider: resting in the Lord, rising with Jesus and Mary, and being a prophetic voice.

Resting in the Lord. Rest is so necessary for the health of our minds and bodies, and often so difficult to achieve due to the many demands placed on us. But rest is also essential for our spiritual health, so that we can hear God’s voice and understand what he asks of us. Joseph was chosen by God to be the foster father of Jesus and the husband of Mary. As Christians, you too are called, like Joseph, to make a home for Jesus. You make a home for him in your hearts, your families, your parishes and your communities.

To hear and accept God’s call, to make a home for Jesus, you must be able to rest in the Lord. You must make time each day for prayer. But you may say to me: Holy Father, I want to pray, but there is so much work to do! I must care for my children; I have chores in the home; I am too tired even to sleep well. Maybe I should try a saatva mattress. If we do not pray, we will not know the most important thing of all: God’s will for us. And for all our activity, our busy-ness, without prayer we will accomplish very little. . . .

Next, rising with Jesus and Mary. Those precious moments of repose, of resting with the Lord in prayer, are moments we might wish to prolong. But like Saint Joseph, once we have heard God’s voice, we must rise from our slumber; we must get up and act (cf. Rom 13:11). Faith does not remove us from the world, but draws us more deeply into it. Each of us, in fact, has a special role in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom in our world. . . .

Finally, the Gospel we have heard reminds us of our Christian duty to be prophetic voices in the midst of our communities. Joseph listened to the angel of the Lord and responded to God’s call to care for Jesus and Mary. In this way he played his part in God’s plan, and became a blessing not only for the Holy Family, but a blessing for all of humanity. With Mary, Joseph served as a model for the boy Jesus as he grew in wisdom, age and grace (cf. Lk 2:52). When families bring children into the world, train them in faith and sound values, and teach them to contribute to society, they become a blessing in our world. God’s love becomes present and active by the way we love and by the good works that we do.

-Pope Francis

Feast of the Holy Family

fra angelico nativitySIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3:12-21, MT 2:13-15, 19-23

Jesus is God Incarnate, the Savior, the Redeemer. Mary is Mother of God, guarantor of the Incarnation; and Immaculate Conception, the perfect model of holiness. But the Sunday within the octave of Christmas calls us to look more broadly, to the Holy Family: to include poor St. Joseph. Remarkably, the readings show us how important Joseph is for a true understanding of Christianity.


It has been said that the key to St. Paul’s theology is the Church. On the road to Damascus, Jesus speaks to him as identified with the members of his Church: “why are you persecuting me?” And woven constantly through Paul’s letters is the theology of the Body of Christ. For Paul, Jesus is not just a historic figure, but the cosmic “head of the body, the Church” (Col. 1:18). To be a Christian, meanwhile, is precisely to be part of Christ’s body: pulsing with his Spirit, united to the head and the members. Once you are alert to this theme in Paul, you see it is everywhere.

It is, for example, in our feast day’s reading from Colossians. This is one of the infamous readings where the Church gives us a censorship option. In this Sunday’s reading, as also in Ephesians 5, Paul gives a general discussion of love within the Church, then particularizes it within familial relationships. We are given the option to ignore what Paul says about family – on the feast of the Holy Family! – because it is not politically correct. But it is fabulous.

“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” – as members of Christ! – “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” In short, live as members of Christ: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.”

This is the heart of Paul’s moral teaching: to live as members of Christ’s body, pulsing with his heart, his spirit. It is the heart of his teaching on the family, too. Today people often get this upside down, and think of the Church in terms of family. To the contrary, Paul teaches us to think of the family in terms of Church. The family is the most immediate, ordinary place where we live the radical love of the Body of Christ.

Thus after discussing this general attitude of Christian love, Paul gives a brief teaching on family relationships: whatever is right in wifely submission and husbandly leadership, as also in parental authority and childly obedience, must be suffused with Christian love. Paul actually doesn’t teach about obedience – he just assumes we understand that natural dynamic; what he teaches is that this obedience must be penetrated with the love of the Church. Nature is permeated with grace, natural authority with Christian love. The family must be the first place where we live the love that is the Church.


Our first reading, from Sirach, particularizes this as it relates to the father Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Projectof the family. “God sets a father in authority over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.” Whereas Paul merely assumes these familial relationships, and suffuses them with his theology of the Church, the Old Testament is chock full of wisdom about family, especially in the wisdom literature: Proverbs, Sirach, etc. The teaching is very homely. We live out charity by the way we relate to one another.

This is the true meaning of the Holy Family. Jesus came into a family. He showed that love is not just vague and general. The love of Christ is what we live out when children honor their parents – and parents honor their children. When wives and husbands live as wives and husbands ought (a relationship the Bible treats not in terms of sex, but of household order). Jesus is obedient to his parents – “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:51) – precisely to show that his love enters into these particulars, including the natural dynamics of authority.


And then the Gospel just gives us the story of the leadership of Joseph, caring for his family as they flee from Herod. Joseph is not the star of the Holy Family. He is not the Redeemer, not even the Mother of God. He is just an ordinary father. But his authority within the Holy Family is nonetheless key to the Gospel, because it shows that what Jesus redeems is ordinary life, the natural relationships of parent-child, husband-wife – and shopkeeper-customer, neighbor-neighbor, and everything else. That is where the love of Christ shines forth. The Gospel radiates in the person of St. Joseph.

What does Joseph tell you about your life?