On the feast of the Assumption, 1989, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter, Redemptoris Custos (Protector of the Redeemer), a reflection on St Joseph in the life of Christ and the Church. With St Joseph's feast day on March 19, it is timely to consider it again.
"Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife." (Mt 1 :24)
Inspired by the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church from the earliest centuries stressed that just as St Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ's upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ's Mystical Body, that is, the Church.
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.
It follows that Joseph's fatherhood – a relationship that places him as close as possible to Christ, to whom every election and predestination is ordered (Rom 8:28-29) – comes to pass through marriage to Mary, that is, through the family.
While clearly affirming that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that virginity remained intact in the marriage (Mt 1:18-25 Lk 1:26-38), the evangelists refer to Joseph as Mary's husband and to Mary as his wife (Mt 1:16, 18-20, 24 Lk 1:27 2:5).
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.
Thus one understands why the generations are listed according to the genealogy of Joseph: "Why" St Augustine asks, "should they not be according to Joseph? Was he not Mary's husband?
"Scripture states, through the authority of an angel, that he was her husband. 'Do not fear, says the angel, to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.' Joseph was told to name the child, although not born from his seed. She will bear a son, the angel says, and you will call him Jesus.
"Scripture recognises that Jesus is not born of Joseph's seed, since in his concern about the origin of Mary's pregnancy, Joseph is told that it is of the Holy Spirit.
"Nonetheless, he is confirmed in his fatherly authority from the moment that he is told to name the child. Finally, even the Virgin Mary, well aware that she has not conceived Christ as a result of conjugal relations with Joseph, still calls him Christ's father."
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)
In this marriage none of the requisites of marriage were lacking: as St Augustine wrote, "In Christ's parents all the goods of marriage were realised – offspring, fidelity, the sacrament: the offspring being the Lord Jesus himself; fidelity, since there was no adultery; the sacrament, since there was no divorce."
At the culmination of the history of salvation, when God reveals his love for humanity through the gift of the Word, it is precisely the marriage of Mary and Joseph that brings to realisation, in full freedom, the spousal gift of self in receiving and expressing such a love.
Pope Paul VI wrote, "We see that at the beginning of the New Testament, as at the beginning of the Old, there is a married couple. But whereas Adam and Eve were the source of evil which was unleashed on the world, Joseph and Mary arc the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth."
Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God, and gave her a husband's "gift of self". Even though he decided to draw back so as not to interfere in the plan of God which was coming to pass in Mary, Joseph obeyed the explicit command of the angel and look Mary into his home, while respecting the fact that she belonged exclusively to God.
On the other hand, it was from his marriage to Mary that Joseph derived his singular dignity and his rights in regard to Jesus.
Pope Leo XIII wrote, "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 honour: he also gave Joseph to Mary in order that he might share, through the marriage pact, in her own sublime greatness."
The total sacrifice, whereby Joseph surrendered his whole existence to the demands of the Messiah's coming into his home, becomes understandable only in the light of his profound interior life.
It was from this interior life that "very singular commands and consolations came, bringing him also the logic and strength that belong to simple and clear souls, and giving him the power of making great decisions – such as the decision to put his liberty immediately at the disposition of the divine designs, to make over to them also his legitimate human calling, his conjugal happiness, to accept the conditions, the responsibility and the burden of a family, but, through an incomparable virginal love, to renounce that natural conjugal love that is the foundation and nourishment of the family." (Paul VI)
May St Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.