I have a friend who does quite a bit of public speaking about marriage. Having heard him a number of times, I can usually anticipate his jokes long before he makes them.
He pokes fun at the quirks that enter marital relationships and the way that our culture views marriages. “I might be the one who is almost always wrong in my marriage,” he says, “but at least I’ve got it better than Joseph.” “Just imagine sharing a house with Mary and Jesus! He shared a house with two sinless people! You know that, if something was wrong, it was Joseph’s fault!”
It’s not a great joke but I laugh and the audience laughs and all is right with the world.
I’ll admit that, apart from this joke, I don’t often give St. Joseph a whole lot of thought. He is the silent member of the Holy Family and, though we recognize him as a Saint, he’s often and easily forgotten. But, on this, the feast of St. Joseph I stop to think about what, if anything, St. Joseph teaches me about being a husband, a father and a man of faith.
We know so little about St. Joseph. We get three glimpses of him in the gospels: first responding to the call to take Mary as his wife, leading her to Bethlehem. Next, we get a glimpse of Joseph taking Mary to exile in Egypt. Then, finally, Joseph is seen on the road out of Jerusalem, having unwittingly left the tween Jesus back at the temple.
To be honest, there isn’t much there to go on. But there’s something there.
It’s true that Joseph lived with the savior of the world and the mother of God. And yes, it’s true that, in terms of cosmic significance, his role doesn’t seem very compelling. But, at no point in the gospel do we find account that Jesus spent his childhood hungry, unsheltered or uncared-for. We don’t read stories about Mary working desperately to care for Jesus or feed him. No, the brilliance of the gospel’s perspective in portraying the life of Joseph and his role in the holy family might just be in how little is said of him. He was just there, loving Mary and Jesus.
Perhaps the only thing we need to know about Joseph is that he helped create an environment that fostered the love of God and devotion to vocation of those who lived under his roof. Oh that, at the end of my days, the same could be said about me as a father and husband.
We all desire to live lives of significance, to leave a behind a legacy. For men especially, this seems to be what drives us. We work like crazy to prove ourselves in the world and to be told that we have something to offer others.
But, to my knowledge, no wood-working of St. Joseph still exists. There is no gallery full of the fruits of his hands. He has nothing to show you and me today to attest to his skill as a carpenter. He has, I think, everything to attest to his role as a father and husband. Joseph was given the son of God to shelter, feed and bring into adulthood. He was the protector of Christ, a model of love for our Lord and, if his earthly fatherhood of Jesus looks anything like what I’ve known, one of his “son’s” best friends.
For those of us who have been called to be husbands and fathers, St. Joseph stands as a silent reminder that the work we produce with our hands will pass away. Everything we produce will outlive its significance and usefulness. If we strive to fill our lives with the products of our own labor, we’ll be left with nothing to leave behind.
All Christian discipleship is about dying to oneself, to put the good of another before yourself and follow the way that Christ exhibited. Children and wives give fathers and husbands this chance to step aside, creating an environment of love and faith in which vocations take seed and from which disciples are grown. This is the call of St. Joseph. This is my vocation.