By Fr. Thom Hennen
Each year at Christmas time, and especially as we approach the feast of the Holy Family, I find myself drawn to the figure of St. Joseph. He is a silent, somewhat hidden and (for that reason) often forgotten figure in the narrative of Jesus’ conception, birth and early life. We have no recorded words of Joseph in Scripture, and yet, he played a crucial role in the life of Jesus and, therefore, in our salvation. In his trust in the Lord and in his quiet faith put into action he is, I think, a particularly excellent model for those discerning God’s calling in their lives.
Consider first the very “ordinariness” of St. Joseph. I’m not saying that he wasn’t exceptional. He was certainly a “righteous man” (Mt 2:19) and was obviously given great grace to carry out the mission entrusted to him by God, but he was not, as Mary was, immaculately conceived. That is, he was not preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of his life. He had what is called in theology “concupiscence,” that tendency toward sin we experience in our fallen humanity. Even after our redemption (our being “bought back”) through the death and resurrection of Jesus and our participation in those saving events through baptism, we continue to experience the residual, lingering effects of original sin. And so, presumably, St. Joseph struggled with the same temptations with which we all struggle.
Consider next that despite his “ordinariness,” despite the same inclination toward sin that we all face, Joseph trusted deeply in the Lord. Think of it, here is a man betrothed to a young woman, but “before they lived together” (Mt 2:18), who learns that his bride-to-be is with child. He knows that the child is not his and so makes plans to quietly walk away from the whole situation. Some scholars have suggested that it was not that Joseph suspected Mary to have been unfaithful, but that he knew something special was going on here and felt unworthy to be a part of it.
In either case, he had a lot thrown at him all at once and his natural inclination was to escape. “Such was his intention,” we are told, when he was visited by an angel in a dream and instructed not to be afraid to take Mary into his home (Mt 2:20). As I have said, we have no words from Joseph in response to the angel — nothing like Mary’s fiat in Luke’s Gospel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) — and yet we know of Joseph’s great trust by the statement, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded” (Mt 2:24).
Finally, consider that Joseph’s trust doesn’t stop at his first obedience to the angel’s command, but translates into further action. He is by Mary’s side through her pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, the return to and settling in Nazareth. He is present throughout Jesus’ childhood, his early adolescence when he was “lost” in Jerusalem, and perhaps into his young adult life. Quiet perhaps, but unmistakably present, Joseph is a beautiful example of faith in action and is someone worthy of our attention and devotion.
God is still calling ordinary people like St. Joseph to trust in him and to put their faith into action. In these days of Christmas please pray for and encourage members of your own families, parishes and communities to consider a calling to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life or some other particular service within the Church. May we turn to St. Joseph and follow his example in simply doing what the Lord commands.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)