Putting St. Joseph Back in the Picture

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 23 2008 10:33 AM

The Hidden Man of Christmas

Putting St. Joseph back in the picture.

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"The most obvious assumption in antiquity would have been that Joseph had been married before and was a widower," she said. "Most likely, an arrangement was made for him to find a young wife." This is the basis for the Catholic tradition that Jesus' "brother and sisters," who are mentioned in the Gospels, were from Joseph's first marriage. (Mainline Protestant churches are more comfortable with the possibility that Mary could have given birth to other children after the birth of Jesus.)

And given that Mary seems not to have been forced to remarry after her husband's death—the tradition in first-century Palestine—Joseph must have been a good provider, too. "He must have left them well-off," Perkins said. However, she's not certain that his portrayal as an elderly man in so many works of Christian art necessarily had to do with sexuality. "We usually make revered figures older," she said. "If you look at most of the paintings of St. Peter and St. Paul, they look older, no matter what stage of life they're in."

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Though most of Joseph's life goes unmentioned in the Gospels, he carried out an astonishingly important task: raising the son of God. For the first years of Jesus' life, and perhaps into young adulthood, he would have learned much of what he knew about the Jewish faith from his mother and his foster father. Perhaps the practices Jesus learned alongside Joseph in the carpentry shop—patience, hard work, creativity—were put to good use in his later ministry. Joseph represents the holiness of the "hidden life," doing meaningful things without fanfare.

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.

At the end of our conversation, Cunningham told me about one of his favorite paintings, by a Coptic nun, portraying the flight into Egypt. "It depicts the infant Jesus sitting on the shoulders of a young, robust Joseph," he said. "Mary is actually standing at one side and a servant on the other." St. Joseph is at the center of the picture.

James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.