The goodness of St. Joseph before he took Mary into their home as his wife is without question. His Gospel introduction emphasizes his fidelity to the Law of Israel, his compassion for Mary, and his obedience to the word of God as conveyed by the angel. One need not search for indications of the goodness of this faith-filled man called by the Lord.
From the moment that husband and wife began to share a home, life changed for Joseph. The journey to Bethlehem to register for the census became the time for the birth of Jesus leading to encounters with shepherds and magi who had stories to tell. The fleeing into Egypt for the protection of his family produced the need to learn how to survive in a foreign land. Even the return to Israel required a resettling in Galilee. All of these actions must have changed Joseph and required that he rethink his life and the direction in which the Lord was leading him. However, that rethinking did not take place in isolation—Joseph needed to do it with Mary and with concern for their child.
When we reflect on Joseph’s fidelity, compassion and obedience before becoming the patriarch in this family, we can imagine how the mutual love of two other people would change and demand his virtue. From the moment that Mary and Jesus entered his life in an intimate way, we envision Joseph as a different and better man—a man who followed the arc of his natural goodness to deeper expression. Yes, living with Mary and Jesus could only lead Joseph further away from a natural concern for self to a profound concern for family. He did not become a different man, but a developing version of his earlier self—Joseph 2.0.
One would expect nothing less from a sensitive and committed person who could love and share his deepest being. As with any husband or father, a family would demand care, patience, generosity, forgiveness, understanding, and a host of other ways of expressing love as lived in the everyday. How much did Mary model and require of Joseph a spouse’s role? How much did Jesus summon the essence of a parent? Mary and Jesus made of Joseph a better man in their ordinary lives together and he contributed to a parallel growth within each of them. Their dependence and learning from one another swelled with the days and the years spent together. That happens in a family. Their need and support of one another naturally leads us to describe them as the holy family.
After the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, we hear this said of Jesus:
He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them . . . And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man. (Lk 2:51-52)
I wonder how much we could say the same for Joseph. As he and Mary returned with Jesus, could we assert that Joseph “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man?” Did he assume his role as spouse and parent with renewed vigor and dedication as he took this maturing young man deeper under his wing?
What does Joseph teach us through this dimension of his life? Well, one thing would be the dynamics of family! The way in which one member of a family offers love and support to another empowers their life together. One member enables another to be the best that he or she can be. Spouses encourage one another, and bring that energy to the dealings with their children. Children respond to their parents through their reliance and their confidence in them. These processes change the members of a family and help each to progress in virtue.
As we grow in wisdom and age, Joseph teaches us the need to provide an important place for Jesus and Mary in that process.