As in other areas of Christian life, St. Joseph is a great exemplar for us of Lenten virtues that we do well to ponder and emulate.
Like most Christians throughout the first 1400 years of the Church, many today can treat St. Joseph as an afterthought or some kind of ancient "player-to-be-named-later" in a package deal for the young virgin to whom he was espoused. His role as "foster father" of Jesus can often be regarded as an expendable accessory. As Matthew's and Luke's genealogies show us, however, St. Joseph was the penultimate piece in a divine cascade stretching all the way back to King David, Abraham and even Adam, and it was through him that Jesus, under Jewish law and mentality, would be a descendent of David. If we were to ask Jesus and Mary, I'm convinced that they would want us to grow to love Joseph just as they did.
2020 is a particularly important year to do so. We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Blessed Pope Pius IX's naming St. Joseph as the patron of the universal Church. It's a special sesquicentennial that should influence everything the Church does this year, especially the way we prepare for and celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19.
And insofar as March 19 always falls within the 40 days of Lent, it is important to learn how to grow in devotion to St. Joseph during the Lenten season. For those who live a rigorous fast, St. Joseph can occasionally be viewed as someone who rescues us from Lent rather than helps us to live it. His Solemnity -- like the Annunciation on March 25 and the feast of St. Patrick on March 17 in those Dioceses where St. Patrick is patron -- is a day of feasting, not fasting; abstinence from meat is abrogated if it's on a Friday and, like on Sundays, Lenten fasting penances are lifted. The end result is that March 19 can be treated like an oasis rather than a day in the desert, and St. Joseph can come to seem an exception to Lent rather than a model.
But a model he is. As in other areas of Christian life, St. Joseph is a great exemplar for us of Lenten virtues that we do well to ponder and emulate.
He first teaches us about the silence needed in Lent. The state of the desert is meant to be one of exterior and interior silence, when we remove ourselves from the distractions that crowd our lives with so much noise that we can't hear God and so much clutter that we can't see Him. St. Joseph is a man of silence, who didn't speak a word in Sacred Scripture. Silence is a form of asceticism. It's not so much an emptying but an active listening to the God who in silence speaks. In 2005, Pope Benedict stated that in a world like ours, which does not foster quiet and recollection, we all need to be "infected" with St. Joseph's silence so that we can hear God's voice.
Second, St. Joseph teaches us about the obedience Lent cultivates. On Palm Sunday, St. Paul tells us, "Have the save mindset that is in Christ Jesus, who ... humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, death on a Cross" (Phil 2:5-8). Lent is about learning to obey as Christ obeyed. St. Joseph shows us the way. We see his prompt obedience in his response to God who spoke to him in dreams not to be afraid to receive Mary into his home, to arise and flee with Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and to return with them to Galilee. It would have been easy for Joseph, even in a pre-Freudian age, to deconstruct these dreams according to the standard of his conscious desires. Each dream was asking him to do something life-changing: to alter his notion of what his marriage would entail, to leave his job and his relatives completely behind and journey through the desert; to return once life was settled. In each of these circumstances, however, Joseph obeyed immediately. He teaches us how to have Christ's obedient mindset.
Third, he was obedient precisely because he was faithful. He believed in what God was telling him through the angel and therefore did what God was commanding. Pope Benedict said in 2009, "Throughout all of history, Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news." During this season in which we are called to repent and believe in the Gospel, Joseph is, like Abraham, a true father in faith who shows us what believing the Good News looks like.
Fourth, he shows us how to be a "just man" (Matt 1:19). To be just means to be "righteous" or in right relationship with God, in short, to be holy. Lent is a season of training in holiness and Joseph shows us what holiness is. It's to "ad-just" ourselves to God's will, something that he constantly did and teaches us to do.
Fifth, he is a man of humility. Lent is a season in which we humble ourselves and learn "to walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8). Our penitence and penances are humble signs of our need for God and our almsgiving is meant to form us, like Christ, not to be served but to serve and give our life for others (Mt 20:28). St. Joseph learned humility not only through putting himself totally at the service of God's plans for Jesus and Mary, but even in the way he exercised his leadership in the holy family. Joseph, not the Immaculate Virgin or the Word-made-flesh, would have, in accordance with Jewish tradition, led the prayers in the home in the morning, evening and on principal religious feasts. He would have been the one who trained the One through whom all things were made to be a carpenter. The lesser one was placed over the Greater. Such activity can only overwhelm one with humility.
Sixth, he is a man of chaste love. The devil's supreme temptation is to corrupt love, since we were created in the image of God who is love, and are called to love God with all we've got and others as Christ does. One cannot be holy without chastity, which helps to keep love pure. That's why St. Paul, as soon as he writes, "This is God's will for you, your sanctification," adds, "Therefore, avoid all unchastity" (1 Thess 4:3). Holiness is the perfection of love; chastity keeps love unselfish. In a promiscuous and pornographic age, one that cannot understand Christ's celibacy, the chaste celibacy of priests and religious in his image, and the call to chaste continence for those outside of marriage and chaste love of those within, St. Joseph is a model and intercessor who shows our culture how to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Seventh, he teaches us how to prepare well for death. On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. As we prepare to enter liturgically into Christ's death, we are meant to prepare for our own, by losing our lives in order to save them (Mt 16:25). St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death because, Christian piety has always believed, he died in Jesus' and Mary's arms, entrusting them to God the Father's providence and receiving from them prayers and comfort. He shows us not just how to die in their arms but to live in them, as they seek to accompany us, as they did him, through death into eternity.
Lastly, St. Joseph shows us how to protect and provide for others. Lent is a time when we rediscover that we are our brothers' keepers, called to be Good Shepherds who protect others from harm and Good Samaritans who cross the road to care for those in need. St. Joseph shows us how. He guarded Mary's life and reputation against the possibility of death by stoning as a result of her having become pregnant outside of marital intimacy. He protected Jesus and Mary from Herod's henchman. He provided for them through his hard work, which was a constant almsgiving done out of love. Pope Leo XIII, commenting on why Pius IX declared St. Joseph patron of the Universal Church, said: "The reasons why St. Joseph must be considered the special patron of the Church... chiefly arise from his having been ... in his day the lawful and natural guardian, head and defender of the Holy Family.... It is thus fitting and most worthy of Joseph's dignity that, in the same way that he once kept unceasing holy watch over the family of Nazareth, so now does he protect and defend with his heavenly patronage the Church of Christ."
This Lenten season, and 2020 as a whole, is a time for us to place ourselves anew under Joseph's protection and patronage, in imitation of Jesus and Mary.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.