We study the Christmas story in part because we are supposed to imitate its good actors and avoid the sins of the bad actors. Or call it the Christmas “history” rather than “story,” because it really happened, and God uses realities to signify truths, as we use symbols. Sacred history is his story. We are meant to learn lessons of the past and repeat them.
Consider Joseph in this history. We praise him for his prudence. You may know the traditional prayer, Fecit eum Deus quasi patrem regis – “God made him as it were the father of the King and steward over his whole household.”
The prayer hearkens back to Joseph, son of Jacob, in Egypt. We know so little of Mary’s husband that pious tradition rightly tells us to look to that earlier Joseph as an image and type. The Church licenses our imaginations to think of the Galilean carpenter’s life as informed, more fully, by realities discoverable in that Prince of Egypt.
You want to know what the secret life of Jesus was like in the humble home of Nazareth? Pharaoh’s court will give you an idea.
Christmas history tells us that St. Joseph was thoughtful. He proceeded with what lawyers call “due diligence.” Matthew portrays him as carefully considering what he ought to do after he found that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Yet although he was careful, he was also decisive. When the angel next tells him to take Mary as his wife, he immediately rises from sleep and does it. There is no delay, no hesitation. Apparently Mary, who said fiat so resolutely, was matched with a partner who showed a corresponding, manly definiteness of will.
Likewise when the angel tells him to take the Holy Family to Egypt, Matthew describes this as: immediately Joseph gets up from sleep, they leave. In the tradition, one finds speculation that gold from the magi, providentially, made advance planning for such a trip dispensable.
To Joseph is given the important legal role, of naming the child: “She will bear a son, but you will give him his name.” As fathers do generally, he navigated the family through the demands of legal relationships and authorities. No doubt it was Joseph who insisted that pregnant Mary accompany him to Bethlehem, to follow the Emperor’s decree.
So, all the traditional traits of Joseph are found right there: prudent deliberation, decisive action, and complete virtue under law – which is deemed “righteousness.”
Yet this list of his distinctive traits is incomplete. To see why, consider this test. Suppose you asked 100 Catholics whether they thought it essential to be open to messages from God in dreams, how many would say, “of course”? And yet this was essential, for Jesus to live beyond infancy.
Consider how natural agents were moving then to reach a certain outcome. Herod pretended to want to worship the “King of the Jews” but intended to murder the child. The Holy Family was apparently settled in Bethlehem and had no reason for leaving. The magi were going to pay a friendly return visit to Herod’s court on the road back to their home countries.
The result of all of these “natural causes” was predictably the death of the child. He was waiting there vulnerable, in a crib in Bethlehem: easy to find, and easy to execute. Without question, Herod, with his spies, would be able to track him down and destroy him.
It was only an attention to dreams that prevented this outcome: the magi heeded a warning they received in a dream, and Joseph immediately carried out a message he learned in a dream. We think we need to imitate the good actors in the Christmas story. But do we imitate their attention to dreams? How would we do so?
Almost no one reads the part of the Summa Theologiae that follows the treatise on the virtues, “Of Acts which Pertain Especially to Certain Men.” It covers prophecy, vision, and dreams, among other things. Apparently St. Thomas thought such matters an important auxiliary to virtue.
Speaking surely as one who knows, the Angelic Doctor remarks that “the abstraction from the senses takes place in the prophets without any subversion of the order of nature; it is due to some well-ordered cause, which may be natural, as for instance, sleep, or by the intensity of contemplation.” His general teaching is that that visions follow upon fervent striving in prayer.
The early Church Fathers held something similar about the magi in particular. They came to worship God incarnate and desired deeply to learn from him. Perhaps they were even expecting the infant to speak to them. He did not, as this would have revealed his divinity too early. However, they were granted a compensatory privilege.
Strikingly, in Joseph’s dreams, Matthew always says it is an “angel of the Lord” who addresses him. But of the magi, Matthew says simply that their message is from God. Always attentive to such details, St Jerome comments, “They had offered gifts to the Lord and receive a warning corresponding to it. This warning, which ‘they received as a response,’ is given not by an Angel, but by the Lord Himself, to shew the high privilege granted to the merit of Joseph.”
St. Jerome like other Fathers apparently assigned a comparable role to both Mary and Joseph at the side of the infant Christ. “Life returned by the same entrance through which death had entered in,” St. Remigius teaches, “By Adam’s disobedience we were ruined, by Joseph’s obedience we all begin to be recalled to our former condition.” His obedience to visions found fruit even in the truthful visions of others.
To follow St. Joseph, then, at Christmas: Bring your concerns to prayer. Work through them manfully in God’s presence. But implore his advice. And, if you receive intimations and inspirations, act on them boldly.
Expect that the best way to live is prudently, but also with divine assistance.
**Image: The Holy Family with a Bird by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, c. 1650 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]