Putting St. Joseph Back in Christmas

Here’s a story about St. Joseph, the hidden man of Christmas, on Slate.com.  What does his story have to say to modern-day believers?  Plenty.  For this story I interviewed both Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at Notre Dame, and Pheme Perkins professor of New Testament at Boston College.

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--Perkins and Cunningham both see Joseph as a central figure in the Nativity story, one who can speak to contemporary men and women. The Gospel of Matthew makes clear that he is a "righteous man" who does what God asks of him. After discovering Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph thinks of "quietly" ending their marriage plans, so as not to "disgrace" her. But an angel reassures him in a dream. "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," says the angel, who explains the unusual circumstances of the birth. Joseph’s "righteousness" enables him to listen to God and carry out his difficult task.

His personality shines through wordlessly. "Here is a model of someone who represents all the virtues in the Hebrew Bible," says Perkins. "He is asked to do something shocking, but because he’s righteous, he follows God’s guidance. And it’s no fun--not only to deal with that, but with the rest of the story--the flight into Egypt, too."

During that latter part of the Christmas story, when the holy family flees from the murderous King Herod, Joseph was responsible for protecting Mary and her son in extreme conditions. Moreover, says Perkins, "To have to take your family into Egypt--that’s not a direction that Jewish stories want to go. It’s the wrong way." She calls him a "model for how people can follow God through difficult times."

Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at this "model" and restore him to his rightful place in the Christmas story. Remember his natural age. Reimagine him in our art. And recall his very human example of "following God through difficult times." That’s something that can offer encouragement not only to fathers but to every believer.--

James Martin, SJ

(Photo of Oscar Isaac at St. Joseph in "The Nativity Story")

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10 years ago
To my mind, the most recognizable quality of St. Joseph is that he did what was expected of him, without a lot of confab. Typical man, you might say.
10 years ago
I've long cherished this quote bout Joseph from the Jesuit Alfred Delp: Joseph is the man on the outskirts, standing in the shadows, silently waiting, there when wanted and always ready to help. He is the man in whose life God is constantly intervening with warnings and visions. Without complaint he allows his own plans to be set aside. . . . Willing, unquestioning service is the secret of his life. It is his message for us and his judgment of us. We have crabbed and confined God within the pitiable limits of our obstinacy, our complacency, our mania for ‘self-expression.’ We have given God only the minimum of recognition. . . . Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., The Prison Meditations

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