In this year of St. Joseph called for at the universal level of the Church by Pope Francis and locally by Bishop Joseph Strickland, we are being invited to familiarize ourselves with the person of Joseph, to ask his intercession more frequently, and to imitate him in our own lives. The sacred liturgy is always the safeguard of the Church’s teaching, and specifically in her prayers of the Mass and the rituals, we see the unfolding of our theology in practice. A privileged place to see this is in the Preface Prayer, which begins with the dialogue between the priest and people and culminating in the prayer of the Sanctus, or Holy, Holy, Holy.
In this article, I want to encourage you to read through the text of the Preface for the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pay closer attention to the text, what it says and how it should be a prayer that shapes the way you can understand who Joseph is and what he offers us as a saintly example, second only to the Blessed Virgin Mary herself in terms of sanctity. The text is as follows:
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.
Priest: It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, and on the Solemnity of St. Joseph to give you fitting praise, to glorify you and bless you.
For this just man was given by you as spouse to the Virgin Mother of God and set as a wise and faithful servant in charge of your household to watch like a father over your Only Begotten Son, who was conceived by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Through him the Angels praise your majesty, Dominions adore and Powers tremble before you. Heaven and the Virtues of heaven and the blessed Seraphim worship together with exaltation. May our voices, we pray, join with theirs in humble praise as we proclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts…
(Taken from the Roman Missal, Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, March 19th.)
Let us consider for a moment the importance of the three primary adjectives used to describe Joseph in this liturgical text: just, wise, and faithful. In considering these three descriptors, the Church does not intend to exhaust the wealth of Joseph’s virtues. Rather, the Church desires to express the primary virtues by which we can understand Joseph in relationship to his most important duties, that of being the spouse to the Blessed Virgin and “servant in charge of your household to watch like a father over [the] Only Begotten Son…Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
First, let us consider Joseph in the virtue of being just. Justice is one of the cardinal, or hinge, virtues. Justice is not only important itself, but other sister virtues that depend upon it (e.g. the virtues of religion, patriotism, and the exercise of fairness) are only exercised inasmuch as one is ordered towards justice (like a hinge). Joseph, as a just spouse, was considerate of the plight of Jesus’ auspicious conception and decided to divorce Mary quietly without bringing shame on her and the not-yet-born Son of God (Matt 1:18-19). The scripture itself describes Joseph here as a ‘just man’ and points to the importance of this virtue in his life. Matthew the evangelist could have used many other words to describe Joseph, yet he believed this was the most concise and essential virtue to describe Joseph with.
To be just means you give another their due. Joseph heroically lived this virtue in his daily work as a carpenter, treating every customer who came to him with the individual care we only expect today from our Chik-fil-A staff! Joseph also exercised justice towards the Holy Family in his stewardship of his services as they fled to Egypt (Matt 2:14), knowing that working and providing for his family was his foremost duty in this strange land and time of their lives. He exercised the virtue of justice (and its sister virtue religion) by raising Jesus in the Faith and taking him to the Temple for the high holy days (Luke 2:39-41). His focus, as was the Blessed Mother’s, was to do the will of God; to exercise daily the virtue of justice by giving to God what is his due as Creator, Father, and God of all.
Let us now consider Joseph in his wisdom and faithfulness. From Sacred Scripture we can refer to the above verses and see Joseph is a man of wisdom in his exercise of following God, listening faithfully to the inspiration he receives from God and acting upon it. Human wisdom told Joseph to divorce Mary quietly; yet divine wisdom, intervening through an angel, told Joseph to stay committed to her. Human wisdom would conventionally advise against moving to a foreign country after the birth of a child, where finding work and being away from relatives will put undue strain on your family. Yet Joseph listened to the wisdom of God and acted upon it.
What we do not see in Scripture is more from inference and the writings of saints. However what is consistent with Joseph being a man of wisdom is that he was able to faithfully instruct the child Jesus in the workings of the world and in the ways of God. Providing for Jesus a home in which learning a trade was valued, where knowledge of Scripture and its implications were ways in which Joseph wisely cared for his wife and son.
In terms of faithfulness, we can see from Luke 2:21ff, and 2:39-41 that Joseph was faithful to God in terms of practicing his religion, and that he made this a priority for the Holy Family. His faithfulness to Our Lady, though initially tested because of the circumstances of Jesus’ conception, ultimately reveals his untiring devotion to her and the child Jesus. Again, we do not know much of his life, but we can infer with good reason that Joseph was a faithful carpenter, doing each job with precision and excellence for each customer, no matter how small the job. His fidelity is also attested to by his famous patronage as the intercessor for a happy death. In Joseph, we see ourselves, sinful yes, but not defined by our sins, and in his death, we see a man who remained just, wise, and faithful to the end. As we continue this year of St. Joseph, it is my hope that each of you is inspired anew to know more about our universal patron and protector. I cannot recommend highly enough Pope Francis’ letter Patris Corde (With A Father’s Heart) which can be found for free online with ease. As we approach his fatherly heart, let us give thanks that God the Father has given us such a good example to imitate in St. Joseph, and let us strive to be a people more just, wise, and faithful!
Cover Image: Childhood of Christ, by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1620.