The Passion of Saint Joseph

It has always been believed that Saint Joseph died some time before Our Lord’s Passion. The Virgin-Father of Our Lord breathed forth his last surrounded by Jesus and Mary, and thus became the patron of a holy death. Whereas the most holy Virgin was predestined to participate directly and most closely in the Passion of Our Lord — so much so that she earned the title Co-Redemptrix — not so, Saint Joseph. To speak, then, of “The Passion of Saint Joseph” is to consider something other than the great carpenter’s direct participation in the events of Good Friday.

While his body and soul awaited their reunion — the former in the tomb and the latter in the Limbo of the Just — Saint Joseph’s foreknowledge and influence both made him an indirect but very real participant in the drama of our redemption.

To Saint Joseph was given a foreknowledge of Our Lord’s Passion. In 1956, the Patriarch himself revealed this to the visionary, Sister Mary Ephrem Neuzel, as part of the revelations of Our Lady of America:

“My heart suffered with the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Mine was a silent suffering, for it was my special vocation to hide and shield, as long as God willed, the Virgin Mother and Son from the malice and hatred of men.

“The most painful of my sorrows was that I knew beforehand of their passion, yet would not be there to console them.

“Their future suffering was ever present to me and became my daily cross. I became, in union with my holy spouse, coredemptor of the human race. Through compassion for the sufferings of Jesus and Mary I cooperated, as no other, in the salvation of the world.”

If his foreknowledge of Our Lord’s terrible sufferings made him participate actively, albeit indirectly, in the Passion, his influence made him also a unique passive participant. For potencies that Saint Joseph had carefully fashioned for many years were put into act long after his death as his son “trod the winepress alone” (Is. 63:3).

Parents often observe each other’s features in their offspring. “You look just like your mother when you do that,” or some such thing, is commonly uttered — evoking either a pleasant or a painful correspondence between spouse and child. Jesus, naturally, looked very much like Mary, having received, as He did, all of His genes from her, and none from her husband.[1]

But genes are not all that goes into a child. Whether we call it education, discipline, or training, the multi-faceted art of child-rearing impresses as much or more of the parent onto the child as do the data contained on the double helix of DNA. Personality or temperament are already determined at birth (of this I am reasonably confident), but character is formed by upbringing. As Saint Joseph was truly father to Our Lord in every conceivable way other than the strictly biological, he was, with Mary, responsible for Jesus’ upbringing, that is, the formation of His very unique character. As a father in Israel, he had the duty to foster an environment of respect, love, piety, and religious observance in the home. Head of the Jewish “domestic Church” of the Holy House, he dutifully performed certain household religious ceremonies at which Jesus assisted. As a poor artisan, Joseph also had the duty of teaching Our Lord a trade, and that an arduous one. In this light, we can consider what Saint Paul meant when he wrote to the Hebrews that “whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Finally, as the male parent of the Boy, Saint Joseph was particularly responsible for imparting the masculine character that the Son of God would bring to His mission to save our race.

In a word, Our Lord’s practice of manly virtue was an icon that had been painted by Saint Joseph.

Some may object to the foregoing as detracting from Our Lord’s Divinity. An explanation as to why it does not so detract may be helpful. As the Man-God, Jesus had four kinds of knowledge: the divine, the beatific, the prophetic, and the acquired. The last of these, the acquired knowledge (also called “experimental”), is the learning that Jesus accumulated from His daily experiences as man. The Man-God’s acquaintance with manhood itself being chiefly by the observation of His earthly father, we can rightly say that Jesus learned to be a man from Saint Joseph.

What this implies is that the most fertile human mind that ever existed observed the habits, movements, utterances, cadences, expressions, rhythms, carriage, and manners of the greatest specimen of sheer manliness that humanity has ever produced.

Jesus learned, and did in like manner.[2]

It is certainly a point of speculation to probe into the thoughts of Mary as she watched her Son suffering for us, so what I say here is nothing I pretend to know from anything save my own musings. But I have some humble confidence that the musings themselves are safe, informed as they are by Catholic orthodoxy.

If we attempt to think Mary’s thoughts as the Immaculate One watched Our Lord carry His Cross, we might consider her harkening back to Saint Joseph carrying a heavy piece of wood into his carpenter shop. “He looks just like his father when he does that,” she might have said, as Jesus labored under the weight of the wood. A spasm of pain might have brought to the Holy Face an expression learned from the countenance of Saint Joseph, as Jesus the apprentice watched his father wound himself working with wood and nails.

In His childhood, when Jesus was lost, Joseph and Mary “sought [Him] sorrowing” (Luke 2:48). That sorrow Mary saw on her husband’s aspect was mirrored on the Holy Face of Jesus, who became, in His Passion, the very “man of sorrows” (Is. 53:3).

The meek and humble resignation that Jesus showed before Pilate, Annas, and Caiphas also had its antecedent in Saint Joseph. Our Lady had likewise seen her spouse embrace God’s inscrutable designs when Simeon uttered his terrible prophesy, culminating in those severe words: “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts, thoughts might be revealed” (Luke 1:35). What an ensemble of virtues had that prophetical utterance elicited in Mary’s man! Compassion, courage, selflessness, a chivalric desire to protect his bride — all these vied for one another and ultimately ceded to meek and humble abandonment to God’s will, an abandonment directed by sublime charity for God and man.

Jesus commanded us: “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Mt. 11:29). But where did Jesus Himself learn meekness and humility, those little virtues compatible with, and tempered by, manly fortitude? It was principally from Saint Joseph that He would have learned them. Our Lady, of course, provided an example for Jesus. Her plenitude of grace and the delightful perfume of her virtue permeated the holy house of Nazareth as the Magdalene’s ointment filled the house of Bethania with its sweetness (John 12:3). But it is not chauvinistic to point out that men are men and women are women. Both sexes are obliged to practice the virtues, but each must practice them in a way proper to itself. The masculine embodiment of virtue was passed on by Saint Joseph.

Carrying His Cross, Jesus half closed His eyes as blood mixed with salty sweat ran into them. This physiological reaction, combined with the inner drive to carry out the will of His Eternal Father, produced a mien of grim determination on Our Lord. Mary had already seen that look in the face of a difficult mission, for just so had Saint Joseph once clenched his jaw and squinted his eyes as dry, sandy winds blew across the deserts of Egypt when Jesus was a Baby and Herod wanted Him dead.

But what of Our Lord Himself? Did He think of Saint Joseph during His Passion? It would seem unnatural to think He did not.

The Church herself begins her thoughts of the Bridegroom’s dolors on “the day before he suffered,”[3] Maundy Thursday. On that most holy night, the institution of the Mass and the Eucharist was preceded by the Passover meal, which began with Our Lord’s heartfelt words: “With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). Jesus had seen Saint Joseph preside over many paschal meals, each of them an anticipation of this night whereon the Old-Testament figures would give way to New-Testament realities. It would seem strange if, as He performed the same rites He had seen his father carry out so many times, our Redeemer gave no thought to Saint Joseph.

After celebrating the first Mass, “a hymn being said” (Mt. 26:30), Our Lord proceeded to Mount Olivet, and to the olive garden there, Gethsemane. According to Saint Jerome, that fourth-century biblical scholar who lived in the Holy Land and learned so much of the lore surrounding it, Saint Joseph’s tomb was in Gethsemane. Assuming this to be true, and considering how much the Sacred Heart of Jesus loved the most pure heart of his guardian, it follows — as the night does the day — that memories of the “diligent protector of Christ”[4] mixed themselves into the Agony in the Garden.

And later that night, appearing before Joseph Caiphas, Our Lord was likely struck by the same irony we see: that the murderous High Priest, a “father figure” in Israel, bore the same name as the protector of the Holy Family.

From the Praetorium to the Cross to the Tomb, at each station of the sorrowful way, we can find shadows of the Carpenter, and can be well assured that, if we see them, Jesus and Mary saw them, too.

I will not extend this little catalogue of Saint Joseph’s sorrowful mysteries much further. Perhaps with your Bible in one hand and your Rosary in the other, you will make your own associations.

I would like to conclude by uniting the purpose of Christ’s coming with the mission of his foster father on earth.

Going purely by the explicit evidence of Holy Scripture, there is one word we know for certain that Saint Joseph spoke. It was the Holy Name of Jesus. Saint Joseph not only said it; he gave the “Name which is above all names” (Phil. 2:9) to his Boy. That name means “Savior.” On the Cross, when Jesus said, “It is consummated,” He was saying that the work His Eternal Father gave Him to do, meriting the salvation of man, was finished. But He was also saying that the name Saint Joseph had given Him was now, alas, fulfilled.

[1] None, that is to say, by generation. But we ought not to forget that Jesus was biologically related to His earthly father. Saint Joseph’s father, Jacob, was the brother of Mary’s mother, Saint Ann. Mary and Joseph were, therefore, cousins.

[2] Saint Thomas wrote that it would not be fitting for Jesus to be taught, neither by men, nor by angels (ST III, 12, 3-4). In his explanation of Our Lord’s acquired knowledge, the Angelic Doctor goes further, affirming that Jesus learned all he learned without teachers. Being the teacher of all, it was not fitting that He should be taught. With all this I agree. But I would like to introduce a distinction here that may be of help, one which I believe to be compatible with the doctrine of Saint Thomas. While He was not, strictly speaking, “taught” by Mary and Joseph, Jesus did learn from them. Saint Thomas also held that the marriage of Saint Joseph to Our Lady was brought about by God in order to serve the Incarnation of His Son (cf., his commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel). The great Thomist Pope, Leo XIII, asserted the following regarding Saint Joseph in the economy of the Incarnation: “Hence it came about that the Word of God was humbly subject to Joseph, that He obeyed him, and that He rendered to him all those offices that children are bound to render to their parents” (Quamquam Pluries No. 3, emphasis mine). I believe that the imitation of a parent’s virtues is an office children are bound to render, especially when the parents implicitly or explicitly say “do it this way.” Jesus, we are told, obeyed.

In a much celebrated passage, Saint Paul speaks of Our Lord’s two natures as the “form of God” and the “form of a servant.” He says that Christ Jesus, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.” If Jesus was “in habit found as a man,” He was not merely one in possession of human nature (Aristotle’s “second nature”), but one possessing a particular human nature (“first nature”). In other words, He wasn’t just “man”; He was “this Man.” Now, this Man was conceived in the womb of a Jewish Virgin, came from a specific family lineage, spoke certain languages with a particular accent, practiced the best customs and manners peculiar to the culture in which He chose to be born, etc. He was a particular Man with particular habits. Now, according to Aquinas, Jesus was taught none of these things, but he did learn them from His own human observation. And who were those He observed?

True, both Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin learned from Jesus. This was necessary. He was in very truth their Teacher, whose virtues they would have to imitate to be His followers — to be, that is, Christians. But part of the “admirable exchange” of the Incarnation (referred to by the Church in her Christmastide liturgy — O admirabile commercium) is that the Word of God both took from and gave to the human race. His particular practice of virtue, like the way he behaved at table, his Aramaic accent, or the manner in which He utilized the tools of a carpenter, were learned by observing Saint Joseph.

[3] Roman Missal, the Canon.

[4] The Litany of Saint Joseph.