II. The Guardian of the Mystery of God

4. When, soon after the Annunciation, Mary went to the house of Zechariah to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, even as she offered her greeting she heard the words of Elizabeth, who was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). Besides offering a salutation which recalled that of the angel at the Annunciation, Elizabeth also said: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). These words were the guiding thought of the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, in which I sought to deepen the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which stated: “The Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully preserved her union with her Son even to the cross,” “preceding” all those who follow Christ by faith.

Now at the beginning of this pilgrimage, the faith of Mary meets the faith of Joseph. If Elizabeth said of the Redeemer’s Mother, “blessed is she who believed,” in a certain sense this blessedness can be referred to Joseph as well, since he responded positively to the word of God when it was communicated to him at the decisive moment. While it is true that Joseph did not respond to the Angel’s “announcement” in the same way as Mary, he “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took his wife.” What he did is the clearest “obedience of faith”(cf. Rom 1:5; 16:26; 2 Cor 10:5-6).

One can say that what Joseph did united him in an altogether special way to the faith of Mary. He accepted as a truth coming from God the very thing that she had already accepted at the Annunciation. The Council teaches:”‘The obedience of faith’ must be given to God as he reveals himself. By this obedience of faith man freely commits himself entirely to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals,’ and willingly assenting to the revelation given by him.” This statement, which touches the very essence of faith, is perfectly applicable to Joseph of Nazareth.

5. Therefore he became a unique guardian of the mystery “hidden for ages in God” (Eph 3:9), as did Mary in that decisive moment which Saint Paul calls “the fullness of time,” when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5)In the words of the Council: “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Eph 1:9). His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2 Pt 1:4).”

Together with Mary, Joseph is the first guardian of this divine mystery. Together with Mary, and in relation to Mary, he shares in this final phase of God’s self-revelation in Christ, and he does so from the very beginning. Looking at the Gospel texts of both Matthew and Luke, one can also say that Joseph is the first to share in the faith of the Mother of God, and that 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.” It is a path along which-especially at the time of Calvary and Pentecost-Mary will precede in a perfect way.

6. The path that was Joseph’s-his pilgrimage of faith-ended first, that is to say, before Mary stood at the foot of the Cross on Golgotha, and before that time after Christ returned to the Father, when she was present in the Upper Room on Pentecost, the day the Church was manifested to the world, having been born in the power of the Spirit of truth. Nevertheless, Joseph’s way of faith moved in the same direction: it was totally determined by the same mystery, of which he, together with Mary, had been the first guardian. The Incarnation and Redemption constitute an organic and indissoluble unity, in which “the plan of revelation is realized by words and deeds which are intrinsically bound up with each other.” Precisely because of this unity, Pope John XXIII, who had a great devotion to Saint Joseph, directed that Joseph’s name be inserted in the Roman Canon of the Mass–which is the perpetual memorial of redemption–after the name of Mary and before the Apostles, Popes and Martyrs.

The Service of Fatherhood

7. As can be deduced from the Gospel texts, Joseph’s marriage to Mary is the juridical basis of his fatherhood. It was to assure fatherly protection for Jesus that God chose Joseph to be Mary’s spouse. It follows that Joseph’s fatherhood–a relationship that places him as close as possible to Christ, to whom every election and predestination is ordered (cf. Rom 8: 28-29)–comes to pass through marriage to Mary, that is, through the family.

While clearly affirming that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that virginity remained intact in the marriage (cf. Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38), the Evangelists refer to Joseph as Mary’s husband and to Mary as his wife (cf. Mt 1:16, 18-20, 24; Lk 1:27; 2:5).

And while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary’s marriage to Joseph, because juridically Joseph’s fatherhood depends on it. Thus one understands why the generations are listed according to the genealogy of Joseph: “Why,” Saint Augustine asks, “should they not be according to Joseph? Was he not Mary’s husband?… Scripture states, through the authority of an Angel, that he was her husband. Do not fear, says the Angel, to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told to name the child, although not born from his seed. She will bear a son, the Angel says, and you will call him Jesus. Scripture recognizes that Jesus is not born of Joseph’s seed, since in his concern about the origin of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is told that it is of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, he is not deprived of his fatherly authority from the moment that he is told to name the child. Finally, even the Virgin Mary, well aware that she has not conceived Christ as a result of conjugal relations with Joseph, still calls him Christ’s father.”

The Son of Mary is also Joseph’s Son by virtue of the marriage bond that unites them: “By reason of their faithful marriage both of them deserve to be called Christ’s parents, not only his mother, but also his father, who was a parent in the same way that he was the mother’s spouse: in mind, not in flesh.” In this marriage none of the requisites of marriage were lacking: “In Christ’s parents all the goods of marriage were realized–offspring, fidelity, the sacrament: the offspring being the Lord Jesus himself; fidelity, since there was no adultery; thesacrament, since there was no divorce.”

Analyzing the nature of marriage, both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas always identify it with an “indivisible union of souls,” a “union of hearts,” with “consent.” These elements are found in an exemplary manner in the marriage of Mary and Joseph. At the culmination of the history of salvation, when God reveals his love for humanity through the gift of the Word, it is precisely the marriage of Mary and Joseph that brings to realization in full “freedom” the “spousal gift of self” in receiving and expressing such a love. “In this great undertaking which is the renewal of all things in Christ, marriage–it too purified and renewed–becomes a new reality, a sacrament of the New Covenant. We see that at the beginning of the New Testament, as at the beginning of the Old, there is a married couple. But whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth. The Saviour began the work of salvation by this virginal and holy union, wherein is manifested his all-powerful will to purify and sanctify the family–that sanctuary of love and cradle of life.”

How much the family of today can learn from this! “The essence and role of the family are in the final analysis specified by love. Hence the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church his bride.” This being the case, it is in the Holy Family, the original “Church in miniature (Ecclesia domestica),” that every Christian family must be reflected. “Through God’s mysterious design, it was in that family that the Son of God spent long years of a hidden life. It is therefore the prototype and example for all Christian families.”

8. Saint Joseph was called by God to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood. It is precisely in this way that, as the Church’s Liturgy teaches, he “cooperated in the fullness of time in the great mystery of salvation” and is truly a “minister of salvation.” His fatherhood is expressed concretely “in his having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it; in having used the legal authority which was his over the Holy Family in order to make a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house.”

In recalling that “the beginnings of our redemption” were entrusted “to the faithful care of Joseph,” the Liturgy specifies that “God placed him at the head of his family, as a faithful and prudent servant, so that with fatherly care he might watch over his only begotten Son.” Leo XIII emphasized the sublime nature of this mission: “He among all stands out in his august dignity, since by divine disposition he was guardian, and according to human opinion, father of God’s Son. Whence it followed that the Word of God was subjected to Joseph, he obeyed him and rendered to him that honor and reverence that children owe to their father.”

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfil it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus “by a special gift from heaven, all the natural love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know.”

Besides fatherly authority over Jesus, God also gave Joseph a share in the corresponding love, the love that has its origin in the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15).

The Gospels clearly describe the fatherly responsibility of Joseph toward Jesus. For salvation–which comes through the humanity of Jesus–is realized in actions which are an everyday part of family life, in keeping with that “condescension” which is inherent in the economy of the Incarnation. The Gospel writers carefully show how in the life of Jesus nothing was left to chance, but how everything took place according to God’s predetermined plan. The oft-repeated formula, “This happened, so that there might be fulfilled…,” in reference to a particular event in the Old Testament, serves to emphasize the unity and continuity of the plan which is fulfilled in Christ.

With the Incarnation, the “promises” and “figures” of the Old Testament become “reality:” places, persons, events and rites interrelate according to precise divine commands communicated by Angels and received by creatures who are particularly sensitive to the voice of God. Mary is the Lord’s humble servant, prepared from eternity for the task of being the Mother of God. Joseph is the one whom God chose to be the “overseer of the Lord’s birth,” the one who has the responsibility to look after the Son of God’s “ordained” entry into the world, in accordance with divine dispositions and human laws. All of the so-called “private” or “hidden” life of Jesus is entrusted to Joseph’s guardianship.

The Census

9. Journeying to Bethlehem for the census in obedience to the orders of legitimate authority, Joseph fulfilled for the child the significant task of officially inserting the name “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth” (cf. Jn 1:45) in the registry of the Roman Empire. This registration clearly shows that Jesus belongs to the human race as a man among men, a citizen of this world, subject to laws and civil institutions, but also “saviour of the world.” Origen gives a good description of the theological significance, by no means marginal, of this historical fact: “Since the first census of the whole world took place under Caesar Augustus, and among all the others Joseph too went to register together with Mary his wife, who was with child, and since Jesus was born before the census was completed: to the person who makes a careful examination it will appear that a kind of mystery is expressed in the fact that at the time when all people in the world presented themselves to be counted, Christ too should be counted. By being registered with everyone, he could sanctify everyone; inscribed with the whole world in the census, he offered to the world communion with himself, and after presenting himself he wrote all the people of the world in the book of the living, so that as many as believed in him could then be written in heaven with the saints of God, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”

The Birth at Bethlehem

10. As guardian of the mystery “hidden for ages in the mind of God,” which begins to unfold before his eyes “in the fullness of time,” Joseph, together with Mary, is a privileged witness to the birth of the Son of God into the world on Christmas night in Bethlehem. Luke writes: “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:6-7).

Joseph was an eyewitness to this birth, which took place in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing–a first announcement of that “self-emptying” (cf. Phil 2:5-8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins. Joseph also witnessed the adoration of the shepherds who arrived at Jesus’ birthplace after the Angel had brought them the great and happy news (cf. Lk 2:15-16). Later he also witnessed the homage of the Magi who came from the East (cf. Mt_2:11).

The Circumcision

11. A son’s circumcision was the first religious obligation of a father, and with this ceremony (cf. Lk 2:21) Joseph exercised his right and duty with regard to Jesus.

The principle which holds that all the rites of the Old Testament are a shadow of the reality (cf. Heb 9:9f; 10:1) serves to explain why Jesus would accept them. As with all the other rites, circumcision too is “fulfilled” in Jesus. God’s covenant with Abraham, of which circumcision was the sign (cf. Gen 17:13), reaches its full effect and perfect realization in Jesus, who is the “yes” of all the ancient promises (cf. 2 Cor 1:20).

Conferral of the Name

12. At the circumcision Joseph names the child “Jesus.” This is the only name in which there is salvation (cf. Acts 4:12). Its significance had been revealed to Joseph at the moment of his “annunciation:” “You shall call the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (cf. Mt 1:21). In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and in speaking the name he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

13. This rite, to which Luke refers (2:22ff), includes the ransom of the first-born and sheds light on the subsequent stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve.

The ransoming of the first-born is another obligation of the father, and it is fulfilled by Joseph. Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God. Here too Jesus–who is the true “price” of ransom (cf. 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pt 1:19)–not only “fulfills” the Old Testament rite, but at the same time transcends it, since he is not a subject to be redeemed, but the very author of redemption.

The Gospel writer notes that “his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him” (Lk 2:23), in particular at what Simeon said in his canticle to God, when he referred to Jesus as the “salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” and as a “sign that is spoken against” (cf. Lk 2:30-34).

The Flight into Egypt

14. After the presentation in the Temple the Evangelist Luke notes: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:39-40).

But according to Matthew’s text, a very important event took place before the return to Galilee, an event in which divine providence once again had recourse to Joseph. We read: “now when [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child and destroy him'” (Mt 2:13). Herod learned from the Magi who came from the East about the birth of the “king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2). And when the Magi departed, he “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). By killing them all, he wished to kill the new-born “king of the Jews” of whom he had come to learn. And so, Joseph, having been warned in a dream, “took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son'” (Mt 2:14-15; cf. Hos 11:1).

And so Jesus’ way back to Nazareth from Bethlehem passed through Egypt. Just as Israel had followed the path of the exodus “from the condition of slavery” in order to begin the Old Covenant, so Joseph, guardian and cooperator in the providential mystery of God, even in exile watched over the one who brings about the New Covenant.

Jesus’ Stay in the Temple

15. From the time of the Annunciation, both Joseph and Mary found themselves, in a certain sense, at the heart of the mystery hidden for ages in the mind of God, a mystery which had taken on flesh: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). He dwelt among men, within the surroundings of the Holy Family of Nazareth–one of the many families in the small town in Galilee, one of the many families of the land of Israel. There Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40). The Gospels summarize in a few words the long period of the “hidden” life, during which Jesus prepared himself for his messianic mission. Only one episode from this “hidden time” is described in the Gospel of Luke: the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old.

Together with Mary and Joseph, Jesus took part in the feast as a young pilgrim. “And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it” (Lk 2:43). After a day’s journey, they noticed his absence and began to search “among their kinsfolk and acquaintances.” “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2:47). Mary asked: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Lk 2:48). The answer Jesus gave was such that “they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.” He had said, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49-50).

Joseph, of whom Mary had just used the words “your father,” heard this answer. That, after all, is what all the people said and thought: Jesus was “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (Lk 3:23). Nonetheless, the reply of Jesus in the Temple brought once again to the mind of his “presumed father” what he had heard on that night twelve years earlier: “Joseph… do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” From that time onwards he knew that he was a guardian of the mystery of God, and it wasprecisely this mystery that the twelve year old Jesus brought to mind: “I must be in my Father’s house.”

The Support and Education of Jesus of Nazareth

16. The growth of Jesus “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52) took place within the Holy Family under the eyes of Joseph, who had the important task of “raising” Jesus, that is, feeding, clothing and educating him in the Law and in a trade, in keeping with the duties of a father.

In the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Church venerates the memory of Mary the ever Virgin Mother of God and the memory of Saint Joseph, because “he fed him whom the faithful must eat as the bread of eternal life.”

For his part, Jesus “was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51), respectfully returning the affection of his “parents.” In this way he wished to sanctify the obligations of the family and of work, which he performed at the side of Joseph.

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