Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.
According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary. This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.* Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM. That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able. Unfortunately.
Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot. This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business. Stuff needed to get built. It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers. Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards). I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.
So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.
Who, it turns out, is already pregnant. Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly. It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away. By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.
St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:
Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?
Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.
What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.
He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.
Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.” However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally. But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.
I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos. I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb. That’s all.
St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on. Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe. But that’s a discussion for another time. Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be. We need to trust God and act accordingly. This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.
The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple. Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth. I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.
Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth. May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.
*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.