Why do we make such a big deal out of the feast of someone we know so very little about? After all, except for the story of Joseph and Mary finding Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12, Saint Joseph isn’t even mentioned outside of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives—and even they are not considered historical by most Scripture scholars. So, what’s the big deal?
Simply put, Saint Joseph is important because of the role he played in the lives of Jesus and Mary—and ours. Like so many saints, we don’t need a lot of data to realize the significance of his life.
A ‘Just Man’
Who was Saint Joseph? First, he was a Jewish man of his day. He lived in the small village of Nazareth and served as the town carpenter. Without the aid of power tools and a modern workshop, he took care of the carpentry needs of his neighbors. He may have had a large enough business to employ others and may have taught his trade to the younger men, including Jesus. He seems to have been fairly well known in his home community, for when Jesus returned to Nazareth, he was known as Joseph’s son. And like so many other people of his day, Joseph probably did not travel very far in his lifetime.
Joseph was also the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we know from Scripture that the marriage got off to a poor start when, having wooed Mary, he found that she was pregnant. This must have been heartbreaking. But we get a glimpse of the kind of man he was in his decision to “divorce her quietly.” He no doubt was deeply hurt, but he couldn’t expose her to shame; he loved her too much. So, being a “just man,” he decided to do what he felt was best for both of them. We know, however, that God rewarded his love and helped him accept the situation, even if he didn’t fully understand it at the time. Obediently, he took Mary into his home and she became his wife.
But the role of husband grew more complicated as he had to go to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife to answer the call of the king who demanded a census. Travel in those days was not easy, and it exposed Mary to all sorts of dangers. And then, to make matters worse, she had to give birth in a stable. What husband wouldn’t be filled with remorse for not being able to supply his wife with, at least, a decent place to have her child? But this “just man” once again rose to the occasion and did his best. And the same can be said when he had to whisk Mary and her baby off to Egypt to escape a threat on the child’s life.
Joseph’s role as a foster father, as we can imagine, was not easy, either. His worry and anxiety over the child’s birthplace, and then, the threat on his life, must have weighed heavily on Joseph’s heart. And missing the child when he stayed behind in Jerusalem at the age of 12 caused both Mary and Joseph to worry. But, evidently, he settled in Nazareth and worked at his carpentry trade, and was able to supply his family with a decent home and living.
As Jesus grew old enough to know the love that Joseph and Mary had for each other and for him, and to appreciate what his dad had taught him about life and carpentry, we can just imagine how close was the bond between them. It must have been a hard and sad day when Mary and Jesus had to face the death of their beloved husband and father.
We don’t know exactly when Joseph died, but we presume it was before Jesus began his public life. But because Jesus was also a carpenter, we can imagine Joseph teaching him the tricks of the trade. Nestled in Nazareth and serving his community, Saint Joseph must have had some happy days working alongside his foster son, moving about the village, and enjoying Mary’s cooking.
A Model for Many
Is it any wonder that the Church had declared Joseph the patron saint of those who work with their hands, of travelers, of husbands, and of a happy death? And just as Jesus gave us his mother to be our mother as he hung dying on the cross, so the Church has declared Joseph the patron saint of the universal Church to watch over it and guide it as he did the Christ child so many centuries ago.
Why do we make a big deal over the feast of a man we know so little about? Because what little we do know points to a man who can model for all of us what it means to be a man. Joseph was a loving husband and father, a man who worked with his hands, a man who watched over and cared for his family, and who had a deep faith in his God, even when things seemed to be working against him.