Circular Letter: Lent 2002

St. Joseph, the Spouse of Mary

Joseph [was] the husband of Mary, and of her was born Jesus,who is called Christ! (Mt 1:16)

It was into the custody of St. Joseph that God entrusted the mysteries of the salvation of mankind, that is, His Incarnate Son and the Blessed Virgin Mother of God (cf. Collect to Mass of St. Joseph). The entire plan of Redemption is founded on the mystery of the Incarnation. In this mystery, “Joseph of Nazareth ‘shared’ like no other human being except Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word. He shared in it with her; he was involved in the same salvific event; he was the guardian of the same love, through the power of which the eternal Father ‘predestined us to be His adopted sons through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5)(Redemptoris Custos = RC, 1).

In the last Circular Letter we pondered the virtue and moral excellence of St. Joseph in the light of his eloquent response to God in the midst of his great trial. Divine grace disposed him to respond perfectly to the holy Angel’s words, which enlightened him concerning God’s hidden plan. Whereas in truth St. Joseph, the “Light of the Patriarchs”, towers among the great figures in the history of salvation, the grandeur of his dignity and mission often escape notice due to his profound humility and silence which were so interior and supernatural.

In this Circular Letter, following the doctrine of recent Roman Pontiffs, in particular that found in Pope John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos on the Person and Mission of St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church, we want to contemplate Joseph’s dignity as the spouse of Mary according to the plan of God. To know St. Joseph better will help us to better love and venerate him, and so to recognize and realize our own identity and vocation in the plan of redemption (cf. RC, 1).

The Gospel Portrait of Josephs Marriage

“Even before the ‘mystery hidden since the ages past in God (Eph 3:9) began to be fulfilled, the Gospels set before us the image of the husband and the wife. According to Jewish custom, marriage took place in two stages: first, the legal, or true marriage was celebrated, and then, only after a certain period of time, the husband brought the wife into his own house. Thus, before he lived with Mary, Joseph was already her ‘husband’. Mary, however, preserved her deep desire to make a total gift of herself exclusively to God” (RC, 18; emphasis added).

These facts are recounted by both St. Matthew (1:18) and St. Luke (1:26-27); in each an Angel bears the message. These Gospels concur in affirming three essential points: 1) that Mary was (already) espoused to Joseph; 2) that Mary was a virgin; and 3) that she conceived virginally by the Holy Spirit.

Luke presents the mission of the Angel Gabriel, who announces to Mary that she is to conceive the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit (1:31-35). St. Matthew mentions this fact in the context of Joseph’s trial – “Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18) – which evinces emphatically that Joseph is not the physical father of Christ.

The singular, virginal nature of the marriage of Mary and Joseph is accentuated, on the other hand, by Luke, who reports the Blessed Virgin’s response to Gabriel’s annunciation that she was to bear a son. Mary said: “I know not man.” Given the fact that she was already married, she can only be expressing her resolution to remain a virgin. This was her firm intention before and after the marriage she had contracted with St. Joseph and before the visit of Gabriel.

In each Gospel, the intervening Angel charges first Mary, the mother, and then Joseph, the ‘father’, to name the Son to be born: ‘Jesus’ (Lk 1:31; Mt 1:21). In this way the messenger of God acknowledges and confirms the dignity and the responsibility of both Mary and Joseph in relation to the Son to be born. As the Holy Father expresses it, the Angel “turns to Joseph, entrusting to him the responsibilities of an earthly father with regard to Mary’s Son” (RC, 3).

The parallel between the two Gospels also includes the moral qualities of Mary and Joseph. Just as Mary responded immediately with humble obedience to the words of Gabriel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to Thy word” (Lk 1:38); so, too, did Joseph respond in prompt obedience and docile faith to the words the Angel had spoken to him in a dream: immediately upon awakening “he received his wife into his house” (Mt 1:24). Acting “in this way he showed a readiness of will, like Mary’s, with regard to what God asked of him through the Angel” (RC, 3). The Evangelists thus show St. Joseph to be worthily associated to Mary in this mystery of salvation.

The Guardian of the Mystery of God

By accepting Mary into his house, Joseph accepted not only his spouse, but also the mystery of her divine maternity in its totality and her divine Son (cf. RC, 3). He thus placed himself completely at the service of the plan of the Father and the mission of His Incarnate Son. Pope John Paul II further underscores the effect of Joseph’s consent: Joseph “responded positively to the Word of God, when this was communicated to him at that decisive moment….That which Joseph did united him, in an altogether special way to the faith of Mary. He accepted as truth coming from God the very thing she had already accepted at the Annunciation” (RC, 4).

By his perfect obedience in faith, “he became a unique guardian of the mystery ‘hidden from ages past in God (cf. Eph 3:9) (RC, 5). Moreover, “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” (RC, 5). Joseph not only shares in the faith of Mary, but also supports her in this faith which is the foundation for the salvation of the world, the foundation for the Church.

Joseph, Spouse and Father

To express St. Joseph’s mission towards Jesus, modern languages have had recourse to a certain terminology, which expresses some aspect of his task, but which fail to do full justice to his dignity. In English, for example, we call St. Joseph the “foster father” of Jesus. In German they call him the “Nährvater” (“the nurturing father”) of Jesus, while in Portuguese they call him “pai putativo” (“the supposed father”). The denotation of these terms is surely correct; their connotation, though, tends to weaken the understanding of his paternal mission and relegates St. Joseph to a “secondary class” of the Gospel figures.

Superficially, these terms might seem to be justified by Pope John Paul II’s statement: “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” (RC, 7). However, he continues forcefully to draw the conclusion: “It follows that the fatherhood of Joseph – 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 the marriage to Mary, that is, through the family” (RC, 7).

Dignity and Nature of Joseph’s Fatherhood

To this divine election, St. Joseph responded with unconditional generosity. Pope Paul VI describes his response in the following way: “[Joseph’s] 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’” (Paul VI, Discourse, March 19, 1966; in RC, 8). “Through the exercise of his fatherhood” for nearly 30 years St. Joseph “‘cooperated…in the great mystery of salvation,’ and is truly ‘a minister of salvation’” (St. John Chrysostom; in RC, 8).

Joseph fulfilled his duty as father of the family, sharing in the very love which the heavenly Father has for Jesus (cf. RC, 8). He “showed Jesus, ‘by a special gift from heaven, all the natural love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know’” (Pius XII, radio message, 1958; in RC, 8). Jesus, too, fulfilled his vocation and duty as Son in the Holy Family in relation to Mary and Joseph: “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” (Leo XIII, Quamquam pluries; in RC, 8).

The Holy Fathers speak here of a genuine duty of honor which Jesus owed to Joseph! The faithful can more easily understand such an affirmation with regards to Mary, but the question rises as to whether the spousal relationship which unites Joseph and Mary is a sufficient explanation for such a duty towards Joseph. Let us see!

Joseph: Husband of Mary

The solution to this question lies in the nature of marriage as a covenant or sacred contract. Pope John Paul II insists that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was a true marriage: “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” (RC, 7; emphasis added). “In the Liturgy, Mary is celebrated as ‘united to Joseph, the just man, by a bond of marital and virginal love’” (Preface to Mass of Mary of Nazareth; in RC, 20).

There is a tendency today to consider “juridical things” as something extrinsic and insubstantial. To apply such an idea to marriage would betray a grave miscomprehension of this most intimate of human bonds, which by its very nature is constituted by a covenant, a sacred contract. Citing St. Augustine, the Holy Father enumerates the three essential qualities of the marriage bond: 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” (St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 23; in RC, 7).

Thus, their marriage is the divinely willed foundation for the eternal covenant in Christ. The singular dignity of St. Joseph, his fatherhood and his rights over Jesus all derive from this virginal marriage with Mary. Pope Leo XIII articulated this truth most sublimely: “It is certain that the dignity of the Mother of God is so exalted that nothing could be more sublime; yet because Mary was united to Joseph by the bond of marriage, there can be no doubt but that Joseph approached as no other person ever could that eminent dignity whereby the Mother of God towers above all creatures. Since marriage is the highest degree of association and friendship, involving by its very nature a communion of goods, it follows that God, by giving Joseph to the Virgin, did not give him to her only as a companion for life, a witness of her virginity and protector of her honor: He also gave Joseph to Mary in order that he might share, through the conjugal pact, in her own sublime greatness” (Leo XIII, Quamquam pluries; in RC, 20).

Mary was a gift of God to Joseph, a divine gift for his own sanctification. Through the communion of goods proper to marriage, Joseph was granted the most sublime graces of holiness, for his pure heart was perfectly disposed to benefit and share fully in the graces of the Virgin Mary. In their marriage, Joseph and Mary were, as was said of the first Christian community and with greater reason, “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Hence, Joseph’s heart, too, through this spiritual union was made worthy to be the ‘father’ of Jesus. Their communion in grace referred to all the graces of Mary, for these were given her precisely in view of the divine motherhood, which God granted her in the very context of her marriage to Joseph.

“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 the flesh’” (St. Augustine, De nuptiis PL 44, 421; in RC, 7).

Pope John Paul II explains: “Inserted directly in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Family of Nazareth has its own special mystery. And in this mystery, as in the Incarnation, one finds a true fatherhood: the human form of the family of the Son of God, a true human family, formed by the divine mystery. In this family, Joseph is the father: his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring; but neither is it an ‘apparent’ or merely ‘substitute’ fatherhood. Rather, it is one that fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family. This is a consequence of the hypostatic union: humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ. Together with human nature, all that is human, and especially the family – as the first dimension of man’s existence in the world – is also taken up in Christ. Within this context, Joseph’s human fatherhood was also ‘taken-up’ in the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation (RC, 21; emphasis added).

This is why Mary’s words to Jesus, upon finding Him in the temple, were completely justified: “My Son,…behold your father and I have been searching for you” (Lk 2:48).

Words cannot adequately capture the depths of intimacy and union which prevailed in the Holy Family. What was not the tenderness in the voice and in the glance of Jesus saying, “Mother” to Mary, and “Father” to St. Joseph! What was the beauty of soul and of face of this man in whom the Son contemplated the human image of his eternal Father! What beatitude were not Joseph’s and Mary’s when looking upon Jesus they said “Son” to the very SON of GOD!

The Influence of Joseph upon Jesus

In his fatherhood, Joseph exercised great influence over the growth and psychological maturation of Jesus. Is it not written: “Jesus grew in stature, in wisdom and grace before God and men” (Lk 2:52)? The communion of hearts within the Holy Family profoundly marked Jesus in His human character development. It belongs to the mystery of the Incarnation that it be set off in time, geography, culture, language and an individual family. The One, who was known as the “Son of the Carpenter”, was profoundly influenced by Joseph. In this, Jesus not only is the image of His eternal Father, but also became, in a certain sense, the image of His father, St. Joseph, whose trade and human qualities He took on. Along these lines the Holy Father reflects: “Why should the ‘fatherly’ love of Joseph not have had an influence upon the ‘filial’ love of Jesus? And vice versa, why should the ‘filial’ love of Jesus not have had an influence upon the ‘fatherly’ love of Joseph, thus leading to a further deepening of their unique relationship” (RC, 27), a relationship which certainly reflected Jesus’ relationship to His heavenly Father in the divine order.

The Influence of Joseph upon Mary

Given the reciprocal influence between Joseph and Jesus in their loving relationship, it follows that the same must be true of Joseph and Mary. It is not only Joseph, therefore, who benefited and was enriched through his marriage to the Virgin Mother of God, but she too benefited. It could not be otherwise since their marriage included in an eminent manner the “indivisible union of souls” and a “union of hearts” with “consent” which constitute marriage (Summa Theol. III.29,2; in RC, 7). They were “one heart and one soul” in the sacred alliance of marriage; they enjoyed a most perfect “communion of goods” enriching one another supernaturally and humanly. Accordingly, not only did Joseph receive from Mary, but also the Blessed Virgin was profoundly enriched and influenced by the gifts she received from St. Joseph, her spouse. Her love, her virtues, her Immaculate Heart were enhanced and further beautified by the holy manhood and charity of St. Joseph, her spouse.

These gifts of Joseph were divinely foreseen and contributed to the human and spiritual perfection of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. The Incarnation of God, namely, could not rightly take place except within the context of marriage, within the context of a family, in as much as this is an integral part of human life. “The Savior 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” (P. Paul VI, Discourse 1970; in RC, 7).

As we have seen, Mary was already married to Joseph at the time of the Annunciation. The Angel Gabriel, therefore, did not make the Annunciation simply to a Virgin, but he visited her precisely as the Virgin-Spouse of Joseph. Because she was his wife, the moment she virginally conceived of the Holy Spirit, the Child became Joseph’s, too, through the marriage bond.

Reflecting on this, we see also that in the Gospel we, too, only ‘meet’ and come to know Joseph and Mary as already joined in marriage, as already mutually enriching one another. Even though it be true that the sanctification of St. Joseph was inseparable from his participation in the preeminent election of Mary, this does not diminish in any way the great human and spiritual contribution he makes to Mary. Although Eve had come forth from the side of Adam, she was nevertheless a substantial collaborator with Adam in his mission as the father of humanity. In a similar and more sublime way, Joseph and Mary were joined having, as it were, one heart in receiving the salvific gift of the Incarnate Word of God. “St 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’” (cf. St. John Chrysostom, In Matth. Hom. V, 3; in RC, 8).

Joseph’s Mission in Relation to the Mystical Body of Christ

His headship over the Holy Family, his true human paternity over Jesus Christ, the Son of God, applies by extension to the whole Mystical Body of Christ. His spousal association with Mary in her motherhood of Jesus gains for him in the order of grace an analogous participation in her maternity over the Church. Since Mary is our spiritual mother, since our spiritual sonship is a share in Christ’s sonship, it follows that St. Joseph is, in a certain spiritual sense, also our father. This is why the Church venerates him as the universal patron of the Church and appeals to his paternal love and care.

“Pope Leo XIII had already exhorted the Catholic world to pray for the protection of St. Joseph, Patron of the whole Church. …[He] appealed to Joseph’s ‘fatherly love…for the Child Jesus’ and commended him as ‘the provident guardian of the divine Family,’ ‘the beloved inheritance which Jesus Christ purchased by His blood.’ Since that time…the Church has implored the protection of St. Joseph on the basis of ‘that sacred bond of charity which united him to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God,’ and the Church has commended to Joseph all of her cares, including those dangers which threaten the human family.

“Even today we have many reasons to pray in a similar way: ‘Most beloved father, dispel the evil of falsehood and sin…graciously assist us from heaven in our struggle with the powers of darkness…and just as once you saved the Child Jesus from mortal danger, so now defend God’s holy Church from the snares of her enemies and from all adversity’”(Leo XIII; in RC, 31).

By St. Joseph’s prayers and intercession may we be fully incorporated and assimilated

to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God!

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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