Bede is an artist with a long-time interest in the lives of the saints.
Behind every great man is a great woman. First ladies such as Abigail Adams, Jackie Kennedy, and Nancy Reagan reveal the truth of this saying. Their virtues helped shape their husbands. Can the same be said of great saints? That is, has a woman ever helped her spouse to achieve great holiness? Theologians and popes tell us that St. Joseph is the greatest saint in heaven, after the Virgin herself. Let us take a look to see how his virtues were shaped by the first lady, Mary his spouse.
Constancy is determination under duress. St. Joseph gives several examples of this virtue in Scripture. Consider firstly his constancy in view of Mary's pregnancy. She's pregnant and he's not the father. He's caught between the knowledge of her virtue and the possibility of infidelity. Thus, the sheer perplexity of the situation drains his energy. He broods over it yet has to earn his daily keep. So while his days drag on like a cartful of wood, he determines to quietly divorce her. However, God intervenes through an angel's message to alter his intention: proceed without fear; the Child's father is the Holy Spirit; you must name the child Jesus for He will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:20-21).
After Mary gives birth to the Child, Herod's persecution forces the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. St. Joseph faces another challenge — how to live in a foreign culture with the grinding daily hardships. It was Mary's frequent encouragement that kept him going: "Fear not, Joseph, have hope". After this trial passes, yet another one awaits them. The Child is apparently lost twelve years later. Physical and mental exhaustion take its toll as Mary and Joseph search from morning to evening for three days. Mary takes note of Joseph's anxiety and keeps him going by her prayers and example (see Lk 2:48). Then, there is St. Joseph’s constancy as a carpenter.
The practice of carpentry requires much sweat and motivation. While it’s demanding even for woodworkers of the 21st century, who have every available convenience, St. Joseph's task is far more laborious. He fetches lumber from the forest and laboriously processes it; he accomplishes everything with rough, handmade tools. Moreover, the days are long and the Palestinian heat doubles his labors.
Finally, we might consider St. Joseph’s constancy as he grows older. With age comes a decrease in energy and physical strength and an increase of aches and pains, typical of aged carpenters. Hence, St. Joseph has to make an even greater effort to get through each day. Why does he push himself? For the love of Jesus and Mary — to provide their daily bread.
Courage is the ability to meet hardships, fears, or dangers with fortitude. The angel gives St. Joseph the command to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Courage is indeed necessary here. How does he assume the task of raising God incarnate? Any other man would shrink from the responsibility. It is through Our Lady’s prayers. She sympathizes with his situation as no one else can and prays for him continually.
Then also, courage is necessary during the Flight into Egypt. Imagine: God asks you in the middle of the night to leave behind everything and travel to a foreign country. Impossible! Traveling in groups is far safer as bandits and wild animals are always on the prowl. Group safety is not possible for St. Joseph, as he must travel only with Mary and the Child. What bolsters his courage in this situation? Foremost, his trust in God, but also Our Lady’s perfect calmness and constant support.
Silence provides the requisite atmosphere to live intimately with God. St. Joseph's silence speaks volumes, as it were — there’s not a single recorded word of his in the Gospels. He is the prototypical strong, silent type. For example, if he spoke after discovering Mary's pregnancy, there would have been dire consequences. To whom could he turn? He spoke to none but God alone: neither his parents, the local rabbi or anybody on earth, because according to the Law, women suspected of adultery were to be stoned. Later, you’d think he might say something when he and Mary discover Jesus in the Temple. No, it is the mother who speaks (Lk 2:48).
Finally, suppose St Joseph loves to gossip; would he not reveal Jesus’ true identity to his neighbors? "You know, my adopted son is the Son of God." How rapidly the news would spread! Yet, there's not a single word. Consequently, when Jesus begins his public ministry, the Pharisees and Scribes are offended by his miracles and wisdom. They know of Jesus’ humble upbringing: Is this not the carpenter's son?, they ask (Mt 13:55).
Where did St. Joseph learn silence? Possibly it's a natural trait, but above all, it is his spouse's example: she is the preeminent contemplative, who keeps all things in her heart (c.f. Luke 2:19, 2:55). God entrusts St. Joseph with the duty of safeguarding His treasures, Mary and Jesus, and keeping safe the mystery of the Incarnation. He and Mary preserve the mystery in silence until God wishes to reveal it.
Patience is calm forbearance under strain. There are so many examples of St. Joseph’s patience that he’s known as the “mirror of patience”. Let's begin with his work as a carpenter, particularly while living in Egypt. According to an ancient tradition, the Holy Family settled in a town north of Cairo, called Matareyah. In the summer months, the temperatures here are frequently over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, while Egypt has a desert climate, this particular region is excessively humid due to its proximity to the Nile Delta. So we can see, that St. Joseph’s effort to provide for his family in Egypt involves heroic patience. He works from sunrise to sunset in a cramped shop with primitive tools and hellish heat.
Finally, waiting for God to call them back to the land of Israel, requires much patience. What is his secret? Love and faith. He is willing to suffer patiently for the love of Jesus and Mary. He trusts that God knows best and with Mary’s example of never complaining, he calmly endures.
Self-denial is the sacrifice of personal desires for a greater good. St. Joseph placed himself entirely at the service of Jesus and Mary. His life was a continual oblation of self. Thus, he tirelessly worked to provide for the needs of his family. He willingly departed for Egypt with Jesus and Mary, without looking back. But his self-oblation is especially manifest in his perfectly chaste relations with Mary.
The artwork depicting St. Joseph up to about the 17th century depicts him as a very old man. In this way he was thought to be harmless – that is, devoid of passion. In reality, he was close in age to Mary as this was customary for marriage in ancient Hebrew society. He was not free of concupiscence nor a eunuch from birth. Yet, he completely surrendered his instincts out of love of God and in respect for Mary. His spiritual closeness to Our Lady enabled him to surrender his life and desires to God.
The following video explains why St. Joseph is the greatest saint after the Virgin Mary.
Humility comes from the Latin word, humus, "dirt;" it is an acknowledgment of one's lowliness before God. St. Joseph’s life is marked by continual self-abasement after the angel’s message. How could it be otherwise? He clearly understands who Jesus is. The early Church Father, Origen (ca 195-278 AD), says that Joseph understood that Jesus was superior to him even as he submitted to him, and knowing the superiority of his charge, commanded him with respect and moderation. Also, St. Ephrem (423 AD) says that St Joseph lived as though caught between the two sentiments of joy and fear. Joy, because Jesus was infinitely lovable; fear, because He was the majestic God clothed in human flesh.
The best indicator of St. Joseph’s humility, however, is his obedience. Humility and obedience go hand in hand. Thus, he immediately submits to God’s plan, which often involves uncertainty and privation. As mentioned, Jesus' concealment also indicates St. Joseph’s humility. After all, he could have impressed his neighbors like none other by revealing Jesus’ true identity. Who taught him the way of humility if not his spouse Mary, whom God selected because of her lowliness (c.f. Lk 1:48).
4) Love for Mary
Love for Mary is a characteristic of the greatest saints. Probably the most difficult moment in St. Joseph’s life was when his earthly journey was coming to an end. Consider the memories that flood his soul at this time: the joyful moments, as at the Birth of Jesus, as well as the harrowing events, such as the exile to Egypt. They shared heartaches, hard work, and the simple family life of Nazareth. They relive their amazing journey in a wordless glance. Paintings of the death of St. Joseph always depict him with Our Lord and Our Lady praying at his side. What was his chief sentiment at this time? None other than gratitude for Mary, that God gave him such a treasure.
The word obedience comes from oboedire, which in its Latin root means, "to hear." God asks St. Joseph to accomplish certain tasks despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges. Good St. Joseph listens and follows through: he takes Mary as his wife, assumes the huge responsibility of raising Jesus; he departs for Egypt and returns to Israel according to God’s command. He is always obedient to the Law of the Lord. His obedience is prompt and generous. He doesn't weasel out of situations that seem impossible. He sacrifices his own plans. It is his spouse's trustful example that makes his obedience go smoothly.
Prayerfulness is adherence to God in heart and mind. Scripture contains few explicit indications of St. Joseph’s prayerfulness, other than his regular attendance at the Passover in Jerusalem. However, numerous implicit clues indicate his prayerfulness. In the first place, Scripture calls him a just man (Mt 1:19). The hallmark of a just man is constancy in prayer (c.f. 1 Thes 5:17).
Likewise, a just man always gives thanks (c.f. 1 Thes. 5.18). Despite all of the hardships of the Holy Family’s life, St. Joseph counts himself as the luckiest man on earth. His wife is the Queen of Heaven and his son by adoption is the King of Kings. Hence, the company of Mary and Jesus continually inspires him to pray and give thanks to God. One can only surmise that as a Son of David (Mt 1:20), the Psalms are the songs of his heart as he journeys or when his hands make things. Secondly, we can surmise his prayerfulness based on his reactions to the sacrifices that God demands of him. His response is always immediate and generous.
Fidelity is faithfulness to duty and obligations. Why is this St. Joseph’s greatest virtue? In the first place, God could effect His plan of redemption. He entrusted His most prized possessions to St. Joseph's care. Secondly, fidelity brings together all of St. Joseph’s virtues; humility, love, self-sacrifice, silence, and all the rest. Our Lady helped perfect this virtue because as St. John Paul indicates, they supported one another on the pilgrimage of faith; Joseph is the first to share in the faith of the Mother of God, and in doing so, he supports his spouse in the faith of the divine annunciation. He is also the first to be placed by God on the path of Mary's pilgrimage of faith...In the course of that pilgrimage of faith that was his life, Joseph, like Mary, remained faithful to God's call until the end. (Redemptoris Custos, 2:5, 3:17)
There are three essential aspects of St. Joseph’s fidelity. In the first place, there is his external fidelity to the Law of the Lord. We know from the Gospels, that he was faithful to the Jewish observances. Secondly, his external fidelity was simply a touchstone of his internal faithfulness to God. When the angel revealed to him the will of God, St. Joseph responded immediately. There was no hesitation at all when called to take Mary as his spouse or to depart to Egypt, etc.
Finally, the ultimate expression of St. Joseph’s fidelity is his trust in God. Just as Abraham believed God’s word and it was credited to him as righteousness, so St. Joseph believed the word of God transmitted by the angel: the Child in Mary’s womb is of the Holy Spirit, don’t be afraid to marry her. Pope Benedict goes so far as to say that, Throughout all of history, Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news. (Homily, 2009)
Our Lady, Our Helper
At the dawn of Creation, God gave Eve to Adam to be his helper. Unfortunately, she served more as a hinderance than a help towards virtue. In his plan of re-creation, God gave the Virgin Mary to St. Joseph to likewise be a helper and vice-versa. The "New Eve," as the Church Fathers refer to the Virgin, fortunately succeeded in bringing her spouse to the very pinnacle of virtue. She also formed her son Jesus, who from the Cross, gave her to all of humanity in the person of St. John: Son, this is your mother (Jn 19:27). She, whom Christians respectively refer to her as Our Lady (French = Notre Dame), has the calling from God to be a helper for all people to reach the summit of virtue and true greatness.
© 2022 Bede