Reflecting on the mystery of fatherhood, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son: “The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it.” Who understood this better than St. Joseph, the just man (Matthew 1:19), the foster father of the Son of God?
Joseph the just man
Many saints insist that St. Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly, rather than to expose Our Lady to the law (Matthew 1:19), was the fruit of profound, preexistent personal sanctification and recollection. The ability to be that attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit is the fruit of long-standing rectitude. St. Joseph the Just lived “vigilance” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it: “custody of the heart” (2849) — a custody at work even in his sleep.
For this reason, the alarming news of his betrothed being with child caused not scandal in St. Joseph, but scrutiny. St. Jerome says that Joseph “knew Mary’s holiness hid in silence a mystery he did not understand.” It was St. Joseph’s responsibility to be attentive and faithful to that mystery … to be obedient.
The 6th-century mystic, Jacob of Serug, captures this poignantly in depicting St. Joseph as a high priest looking upon the Blessed Virgin Mary as he would the Holy of Holies. “He was loving her and marveling at her and bowing to her; he was honoring her and reverencing her and serving her. He was regarding her like the cloud over Mt. Sinai, because within her the power of the Godhead was dwelling.”
Such was the sanctity that dared to welcome God’s Incarnate Son. “The Lord united in Joseph as in a sun whatever light and splendor the other saints possessed” (St. Gregory Nazianzen).
Joseph the prayer
Which means that St. Joseph must have been a person of profound prayer. That prayer would have included devout reading of Sacred Scripture, “lectio divina.”
The Carthusian spiritual writer Ludolf of Saxony (circa 1295-1378), who is revered as one who “did more than anybody else to prepare the way for a flowering of devotion to St. Joseph” (Henri Rondet, SJ) reflects on how St. Joseph’s actions were the fruit of his contemplation: “Joseph was not willing to lead Mary into his home to live with him because he felt unworthy to be her companion on account of the excellence of the mystery. Joseph had read, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (Isaiah 7:14), and he believed that this was true of Mary. For this reason he wanted to humble himself before such grace.”
One of St. Joseph’s greatest clients, St. Teresa of Ávila, explains how praying to St. Joseph actually perfects the way we pray: “If the petition be in any way amiss, St. Joseph directs it aright for my greater good.”
We can imagine that, as St. Joseph tucked the little boy Jesus into bed at night, he must have been drawn in awe to engage in a kind of eucharistic adoration in the presence of the divine Child.
Maybe Jesus overheard St. Joseph praying this prayer as he drifted off to sleep … and maybe it became Jesus’ inspiration for the prayer we call the Our Father.
My Son, who are our Father’s Son,
hallowed be thy name…
the name which means “God saves”…
the name revealing the power of that Name which is above every other name,
the name the angel commanded me to give you
so that in the authority of that giving
I might embrace you always as a real father
anointed by our Father’s will.
Your Father’s Kingdom come,
for you have come to bring that Kingdom—
to raise up people to your Father’s own divine life
by gathering men and women around yourself,
just as by your holy birth great kings from the East came to your manger —
bowing down in humble adoration before your majesty.
I join them.
For the Kingdom of God is you yourself
whom we have so desired to come.
May your Father’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Help me to put aside my will, my ambitions, my projects, preconceptions, and plans,
so as to be completely surrendered and abandoned to divine providence,
to listen still for the angel’s whisper … even in my sleep.
Into your Father’s hands I commend my thoughts, my desires, my strength, my spirit.
May your Father give us this day our daily bread.
When I had to leave behind my heavy tools
because their weight would hamper our fleeing, exiled to Egypt,
our family reached that foreign land lacking the means to earn our keep.
And yet your Father fed us. We never went without.
Each meal — such a lesson in thanksgiving … in trust … in total dependence.
And when anxiety seized me, I could hear the voice of the Father assuring:
“The One you hold in your arms — he is your daily bread, your sustenance.”
You, who were born in Bethlehem, “House of Bread.”
You, O little Bread of Life.
May your Father forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
You have come to bring us forgiveness … to be our forgiveness.
After his terrible sin, our ancestor David begged in his Psalm:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion cleanse me of my sin.
You, my Jesus, you are the mercy for which he begged.
And lead us not into temptation,
so subtle and alluring … even masquerading as good
— the temptation to send away your Immaculate Mother.
Even you, I fear, will be led into a desert of temptation, my little child.
But I pray you emerge from that desert loving your Father with a certainty, an intensity
only temptation can engender.
And deliver us from evil,
just as your Father delivered you from the murderous evil of King Herod,
rescuing you from the slaughter of the innocents.
May the real absence that so tyrannizes the world
be banished once and for all by your Real Presence. Amen.