The Holy Father recently gave us a beautiful look at the joy of married and family life, rightly understood and well-lived. Despite the unique circumstances of the Holy Family, we see in the marital vocation of both Mary and Joseph the crucial importance of marriage and of the distinctive roles of women as mothers and men as fathers.
In the sanctuary of the Holy Family, Mary as we know, nurtured and gave birth to the world’s Savior. But his earthly father, Joseph, also fulfilled fatherly duties. He was the overseer at the Lord’s birth and, as head of the family according to Jewish tradition, was responsible for naming him.
St. John Paul II devoted the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer) to the meaning and importance of St. Joseph’s role in our Redemption and as a present-day role model. He notes, “Joseph is visited by the messenger as ‘Mary’s spouse,’ as the one who in due time must give this name to the Son to be born of the Virgin of Nazareth who is married to him. It is to Joseph, then, that the messenger turns, entrusting to him the responsibilities of an earthly father with regard to Mary’s Son.”
In his immediate obedience to this dream, “he showed a readiness of will like Mary’s with regard to what God asked of him through the angel.” In fact, explains St. John Paul, “One can say that what Joseph did united him in an altogether special way to the faith of Mary. He accepted as truth coming from God the very thing that she had already accepted at the Annunciation.” His bond of obedience as well as his marriage to Our Lady unite the three members of the Holy Family, since, “The Son of Mary is also Joseph’s Son by virtue of the marriage bond that unites them.”
Included among his responsibilities was the privilege, but also the burden, of caring for and protecting his wife and Son, threatened by Herod soon after the birth. Again, he was obedient to the dream that warned him to take them to Egypt for safety, and a few years later, following Herod’s death, to return.
Joseph as a “just man” was dedicated to the Mosaic law. As Jesus’ father he had the task of educating him in that law, its history and customs, and in the religious duties of a faithful Jewish man. In addition, Jesus the “carpenter’s son” also learned from his father the family trade, observing the care he took to make well-constructed and useful products.
It is no wonder then, that “The Church deeply venerates this Family, and proposes it as the model of all families.” In this way our lesser but still mysterious and God-inhabited Christian families somehow share in the mysteriousness of the Holy Family’s life, where, “Together with human nature, all that is human, and especially the family – as the first dimension of man’s existence in the world – is also taken up in Christ. Within this context, Joseph’s human fatherhood was also ‘taken up’ in the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation.”
St. Joseph’s fatherhood was expressed concretely in a life lived at the service of Mary and Jesus. For, as our former Holy Father put it:
Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth. The Gospel specifies the kind of work Joseph did in order to support his family: he was a carpenter. . . .Having learned the work of his presumed father, [Jesus] was known as “the carpenter’s son.” If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter. . . .Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way. At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption.
Joseph’s model is crucial for us in our own day, when the very idea of fatherhood is often denigrated and even in danger of being lost, and, while success and a workaholic lifestyle are exalted, the sanctification of work in ordinary life is not. While our modern redefiners of the family would see St. Joseph as the icon of a dying model of manhood, we understand how urgently the world needs many contemporary men to follow in his footsteps.
St. John Paul was keenly aware of all the forces threatening the family and its individual members, and invoked the patronage and example of St. Joseph as weapon and antidote. Near the conclusion of Redemptoris Custos he prayed, “May St. Joseph become for all of us an exceptional teacher in the service of Christ’s saving mission, a mission which is the responsibility of each and every member of the Church: husbands and wives, parents, those who live by the work of their hands or by any other kind of work, those called to the contemplative life and those called to the apostolate.”
No matter what our particular circumstances, we all are called to make a joyful and complete gift of self as does St. Joseph. In this way we can be contagious carriers of the Gospel of Life to a world unconscious that that Gospel contains all it needs – and longs for.