Joseph’s hidden life is so eloquent

The foster father of Jesus appears only briefly in the gospels, says Fr James Martin SJ, but he still inspires us to lead a life of quiet service

By James Martin SJ

St Joseph and Christ in the Workshop by Pietro Annigoni (CNS photo)St Joseph and Christ in the Workshop by Pietro Annigoni (CNS photo)

Like many saints whose lineage is traced back to the earliest days of the Church, very little is known about St Joseph, other than the few lines written about him in the gospels. He was of the line of King David, and was engaged to a young woman from Nazareth. Mary was found, quite unexpectedly, to be pregnant. But Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”, as the Gospel of Matthew would have it, planned to dissolve his betrothal quietly. And so, even before Jesus is born, Joseph’s tender compassion and forgiving heart was on full display.

But God had other plans. As he did for another troubled Joseph – the patriarch of the book of Genesis – God used a dream to reveal his saving plans for the carpenter from Nazareth. In the dream, an angel let Joseph in on Mary’s secret. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” That same angel, after the birth of Mary’s son, advised him to take the child and his mother to Egypt, to flee the murderous Herod. And Joseph listened.

A few more stories about the boy Jesus: he is lost on a journey and found teaching in the Temple – and we are into the hidden life. All the Gospel of Luke says about those 18 years is this: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favour.”

This is Joseph’s time. A time spent caring for his son – or to put it more precisely, his “foster son” – and teaching him the trade of carpentry. (The Greek word used in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew is tekton, which can be variously translated as “craftsman” or “woodworker”, but is traditionally rendered as “carpenter”.) In Joseph’s workshop in Nazareth, Jesus would have learned about the raw materials for his craft: which wood was best suited for chairs and tables, which worked best for yokes, for ploughs. An experienced Joseph would have taught his apprentice the right way to drive a nail with a hammer, the proper way to drill a clean and deep hole in a plank, the correct way to level a ledge or lintel.

Undoubtedly, Joseph would have passed on to Jesus the values required to become a good carpenter. You need patience (for waiting until the olive wood is dry and ready), judgment
(for ensuring that your plumb line is straight), honesty (for charging people a fair price) and persistence (for sanding until the tabletop is smooth to the touch). Alongside his teacher, a young Jesus laboured and built, contributing all the while to the common good of Nazareth and the surrounding towns. And is it too difficult to imagine that the skills Jesus learned from his teacher – patience, judgment, honesty and persistence – would serve him well in his later ministry? Joseph helped to fashion Jesus into what the theologian John Haughey SJ called “the instrument most needed for the salvation of the world”.

As a father, Joseph would have been one of his son’s primary teachers in his religious faith as well. Introducing him to the great men and women of the scriptures, teaching him the Hebrew prayers, preparing him for his bar mitzvah, encouraging his boy to listen to the rabbis and religious leaders of the town. And talking to him about God. Children and adolescents are usually bursting with questions about God. It is probable that Joseph was the first one to whom Jesus went with his questions. So Jesus’s understanding of God the Father, his Father, may have been shaped not only by Joseph’s own life, but by Joseph’s answers to his questions.  Joseph’s faith was one of the foundations of Jesus’s faith. But almost as soon as Jesus started his ministry, Joseph disappears, at least in the Gospel narratives. What happened to the guardian of Jesus? Tradition holds that by the time that Jesus began his began preaching, Joseph had already died.  Significantly, Joseph is not listed among the guests at the wedding feast at Cana, which marked the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. But did he die before his son had reached adulthood? How would Jesus have mourned his father’s death?

At an art exhibit at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City a few years ago, I came upon a portrait entitled The Death of Joseph, a subject rarely tackled by artists. In the huge portrait by Francisco Goya an ailing Joseph lies in bed. Standing beside his bed is a youthful looking Jesus, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, beardless, wearing a long red tunic, staring intently at Joseph. Sitting by the bed is Mary. It was an unusual picture of the Holy Family, and one that captures the sadness of the early death of Joseph.

Ironically, Joseph is traditionally invoked by Catholics as the patron of a “happy death”. In his book Soul Brothers, Richard Rohr asks: “How could it not have been happy? He knew that he had listened to the dreams that God had given him. He let those dreams take him to far-off Egypt, just like the first Joseph, and he let them bring him to a new hometown, where he surely had to start all over for a third time.”  Fair enough. But it could not have been a happy death for Jesus or for Mary. How they must have wished Joseph could have seen and heard about his foster son’s work among the people of Israel. How they must have wished for the counsel of their father and husband during the confusing and painful times of Jesus’s public ministry. And how Mary must have longed for his shoulder to support her during the Crucifixion.

Whenever the death of Joseph occurred, he is not mentioned beyond those few early passages in Scripture. After that, it is his life that now becomes hidden.

It is this hiddenness of Joseph’s life that speaks to me. Appearing only briefly in the gospels, given just a few words to speak, Joseph leads a life of quiet service to God, a life that remains almost totally unknown to us. It was, necessarily, a life of humility, and a life
I saw mirrored in many lives while I worked in Nairobi, with the Jesuit Refugee Service, as part of my Jesuit training. In my time there I witnessed that humility in many local Kenyans and with the refugees with whom I worked. As part of my job I frequently visited many of the refugees in their small homes – hovels, really – in the slums of Nairobi. One day I visited a woman to whom we had given a small sewing machine to help with her business of mending her neighbour’s clothes. She lived in a single dark room crammed with her few possessions: an old mattress on which slept her four children, a small hissing kerosene stove, a plastic pail of water, a cardboard box of clothes. Who is more hidden than the refugee, secreted away in her small hovel in a sprawling slum, huddled over her little sewing machine, trying to earn a living for her and her family?  When the refugees used to visit me at our office in Nairobi it sometimes seemed that, shorn of their connection to their country, bereft of friends, lacking money and facing the bleakest economic prospects, they were utterly submerged beneath a sea of misery, hidden from the sight of the world.

The hidden life is shared by many people, even in the more affluent parts of the world.  The middle-aged, unmarried woman who dutifully cares for her aged mother, but whose sacrifices and devotion remain largely hidden from her neighbours. The loving parents of the autistic boy who will care for him for his entire life, and whose worries and heartaches remain unknown to their friends. The single mother in the inner city working two jobs to provide an education for her children, and whose tiring night shifts are still, after many years, a secret to her daytime co-workers. Countless hidden lives of love and service for others. The day-to-day pouring out of oneself (like a “libation”, as St Paul says) for God.

And it astonishes me how many of these people embrace their hidden lives of service with joy. During the first few months of my Jesuit novitiate, I worked at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, run by the Grey Nuns, a small Catholic order, which tended to the seriously ill.  Those who lived there suffered from a variety of illnesses: cancer, dementia, degenerative muscular diseases. Many were surprisingly young. For example, young men who had suffered brain injuries resulting from car or motorcycle accidents. One mother used to come by daily to visit her 20-year-old son, to feed him, read to him and sit by his bed. Here was a life entirely hidden from the world, in a lonely hospital that few knew about, even in the area. (“Youville? Where’s that?” I was asked by even long-time Bostonians.) One winter’s afternoon I came in to find the mother combing her son’s hair. “Doesn’t he look handsome today?” she said with a radiant smile.

This kind of hiddenness is attractive because it is so far from the goals of my selfish desires. In a culture that prizes the bold gesture, the public proclamation, the newsworthy article, I find myself consistently drawn to achieving things so that other people can see them.  Doing a good work seems insufficient: others need to know that I have done this good work! In this way I find my appetite for fame in contradiction to what Jesus taught: “But when you give alms,” he says in the Gospel of Matthew, “do not let your left hand know what your right one is doing, so that you alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will repay you” (6:3-4).

The burning desire for fame is, of course, a manifestation of pride, a pride that seeks not for the hiddenness of the desert or the humility of the unseen act, but the adulation of others. Ultimately it is a destructive mindset, since one can never receive enough acclaim to satisfy the craving for attention or fame or notoriety. Inexorably, it leads to despair and so must be resisted.  But while necessary, the path to humility is a difficult one to tread. In the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen’s felicitous phrase, one strives to seek the freedom to be “hidden from the world, but visible to God”.

I wonder if the more hidden the act, the more it is valued by God. I am always reminded of the story of a master sculptor in one of the great medieval cathedrals of France. The old man spent hours and hours carving the back of a statue of Mary, lovingly finishing the intricate curves and folds of her gown. But, someone asked the sculptor, what’s the point? That statue will be placed in a dark niche against the wall, where certainly no one will ever see the
back of it.

God will see it, he answered. I long for that kind of holiness. But I am far from it.

This essay is adapted from the chapter “Hidden Lives,” from My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press) by James Martin SJ