One of the most important solemnities in the Liturgical Calendar is the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. Another feast, related to the Annunciation, is celebrated only several days before, on March 19th, and is almost universally overlooked because of the minor liturgical feast with the big cultural celebration that takes place on March 17th.
The Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, gets lost amidst the cleanup following St. Patrick’s Day, yet its placement between two well-known feasts perfectly encapsulates what it is to understand St. Joseph.
Everyone knows stories associated with the great Apostle of Ireland, but what do we know about this husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Not much at all. In fact, the stories where Joseph appears are told without him uttering one solitary word, and he disappears from the scene after Jesus is found in the Temple at the age of twelve.
Every story that involves the husband of Mary is intimately related to her and her Son, and they very often are directed by angels who visit Joseph in dreams - just like his Old Testament namesake whose dreams save the Israelites from death by bringing them to Egypt. Sound familiar?
Joseph, as the head of the Holy Family, is the protector of Mary and Jesus, and this is especially, and mysteriously, present in the story from the first chapter of Matthew that has come to be known as the Annunciation to Joseph.
Unfortunately, we, in our modern vision of what this story is about, miss the beautiful and faith-filled sacrifice that Joseph was prepared to make for his betrothed bride. As the Benedictine scholar Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B., has pointed out, Joseph’s actions were not motivated by jealousy - as they might be for a modern husband - but by an understanding of the reality of God’s intervention in the life of his marriage.
St. Matthew tells us that Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” To which Fr. Hicks asks, “Found by whom?” The only answer that makes sense is that it was Joseph who found her “with child through the Holy Spirit.”
Being a righteous man Joseph wanted to do the right thing in the eyes of God - as opposed to the usual interpretation where Joseph is concerned about how this will appear in the eyes of men - and so he is willing to set Mary free to follow wherever the Holy Spirit would lead her.
But in his dream, when God’s plan is announced to him, he is told by an angel “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” The angel understood Joseph’s feelings - this pregnancy, divine in origin, scared Joseph and he needed to be reassured that God’s plan included him as the husband of Mary who was with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was not superfluous to the mission of Jesus - he was essential.
This Annunciation to Joseph assures that Mary and Jesus would be protected from harm, and not just from that of King Herod but from that of Satan himself. As Fr. Hicks points out, Satan was looking for the One who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin would bear the Messiah. He was looking for an unwed mother, one who was all alone in the world. What he passed over was a pregnant married woman with her husband as protector of both her and her Child.
St. Joseph is the ideal husband. He wanted what was best for his wife and he offered himself as her protector as well as her partner. His humility is honest and true, without a hint of the false humility that so often taints our feeble attempts to overcome our pride and to appear humble without really being so.
The depth of that humility can be so easily overlooked because Joseph disappears from the Gospels many years before Jesus begins His public ministry. Yet, without Joseph there would simply be no Good News for the evangelists to chronicle. Joseph may not have “fathered” Jesus, but his role as the earthly father and protector of the Son of God was essential to His survival.
This quiet man, whose feast day is overshadowed by that of St. Patrick, would have it no other way. St. Joseph needs no parades, no hoopla, no wild parties. He is happy to take his place in the Kingdom of God knowing that he was a humble servant, and that, for Joseph, means that he was the husband and father that he was called to be.