It is a special gift this year that we celebrate Christmas during the Year of St. Joseph which our Holy Father, Pope Francis, just proclaimed. St. Joseph, as the husband of the Virgin Mary and the guardian of Jesus, is a central figure of the Christmas story and of the Christmas scene. It was through Joseph that Mary found security in her life as he took her as his wife. It was through Joseph that Mary was brought to safety in Bethlehem for the birth of her Divine Son. It would be Joseph who would lead them both out of Bethlehem to Egypt in order to escape the slaughter of the innocents perpetrated by King Herod. It would be through Joseph that they would be brought back to Nazareth where Jesus would be cared for and raised under his loving care.
Pope Francis reminds us in his Apostolic Letter opening the Year of St. Joseph, Patris corde (With a father’s heart), that “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and guide in times of trouble. St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.” Joseph certainly exemplified this as he lovingly cared for Mary, was integral to the birth of Christ and essential in His care and upbringing. Let us look more closely to St. Joseph this Christmas especially as he appears in the manger. Let us especially pay attention to what he holds in his hands as these reveal to us more closely Joseph’s identity. We can do this as we look at various creche sets and paintings on Christmas cards.
Joseph generally appears in the manger holding a staff. Many times the staff he holds looks like that of a shepherd. However, Joseph was not a shepherd. He was a carpenter. The reason he would be holding the staff was to give him support as he made his way from Galilee to Bethlehem. It was a lengthy journey and Joseph was more advanced in years than Mary. He would have needed the staff to lean upon along the road. The depiction of the staff in the manger reminds us of the sacrificial effort which Joseph made even in a physical manner in order to take care of Mary and to be present for the birth of Christ. It also reminds us that Joseph needed assistance and was not hesitant to rely upon it. He gives us a good example in our own lives when many times we naturally turn away from seeking assistance or even admitting that we need it. The basic support we need in our lives is that of our relationship with God. The staff of Joseph reminds us that we should not ever hesitate to rely on this relationship as absolutely essential to our lives.
Through the ages, the staff which St. Joseph held took on a more symbolic meaning. It is through St. Joseph that the lineage of Jesus goes back to King David. The staff of Joseph began to be associated with a royal staff, not only indicating the royalty of Jesus but also that of Joseph who had such a central role in His life and then in the Church. The legend also arose of lilies blossoming from the staff of St. Joseph which represented his relationship to Mary as well as his personal virtue. Many Nativity scenes portray the staff with a lily blossoming from the top as in the case of the Nativity under the Angel Tree in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are even some Nativity scenes with Joseph holding just a lily.
If you look closely at the figure of St. Joseph in the Nativity scene, sometimes you will see Joseph not holding a staff but with his hands folded in prayer or outstretched in adoration before the infant Jesus. These representations of St. Joseph represents the personal holiness of St. Joseph who had such a deep relationship with God in prayer that many times God spoke to him in his sleep. This was the case when the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife even though Joseph was confused by her situation. This was also the case when the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to flee from Bethlehem and then further instructed him in another dream to go to Nazareth. Again, this vivid sign of Joseph in prayer and adoration at the Nativity is a reminder to all of us of the essential relationship that we have with God which is the center of who we are. It is prayer that nourishes this relationship. We are reminded that we not only speak to God in prayer but that He responds to us as well.
One of Pope Francis’ favorite statues of St. Joseph which he brought with him to Rome is that of St. Joseph sleeping. The Pope tells us he writes out special intentions on a piece of paper and puts them under Joseph’s dreaming head. In his talk to the families of the Philippines during his January 2015 visit, Pope Francis attested, “I would also like to tell you something very personal. I have a great love for Saint Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength. On my table, I have an image of Saint Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! Yes! We know that he can do that. So when I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath Saint Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words, I tell him, ‘Pray for this problem!’”
Another depiction of St. Joseph in the Nativity scene has him holding, not a staff, but a lantern. The natural reason for this would be the need for light in the dark manger and cave in which Jesus was born. However, it is symbolic of St. Joseph, even at the birth of Christ, proclaiming Christ as the light of the world. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, not only do the angels and the star remind us of who Christ is but so does St. Joseph as he shines a lamp upon Him who will shine His light upon the world.
There are many depictions of St. Joseph embracing the Christ child in his arms. In some of the depictions, Joseph is holding a carpenter square. This carpenter square reminds us of St. Joseph whose labor was that of a carpenter. This is an important reminder to us of the value of our work and labor which is a sharing in the very creativity of God. Labor is not only a means of supporting ourselves and our families but of entering into the creativity to which God has called us. In his Apostolic Letter on the Year of St Joseph, Pope Francis reminds us that, “Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten in the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion. ... Working persons, whatever their job may be, are cooperating with God Himself, and in some way become creators of the world around us. The crisis of our time, which is economic, social, cultural and spiritual, can serve as a summons to all of us to rediscover the value, the importance of the necessity of work for bringing about a new normal from which no one is excluded. St. Joseph’s work reminds us that God Himself, in becoming man, did not distain work.”
I have often thought of how Jesus respected the labor of His earthly father who brought bread to the table through his work. St. Joseph was a presence at the Last Supper as the Lord brought bread to the table which would become His Body and Blood. As Christ reminds us, the laborer is worth his pay and St. Joseph is an epitome of this.
Let us today and during the Christmas season take a closer look at St. Joseph in the Nativity scenes within our homes, in different pieces of art of the Nativity and on the Christmas cards we receive. Let us look to what St. Joseph is holding in his hands - a walking staff, a royal staff, folded hands in prayer or outstretched in adoration, a lily, a staff with a lily, a lantern, or perhaps a carpenter square. St. Joseph certainly has his hands full. The objects in the hands of Joseph, so many times overlooked, remind us of the central role of Joseph in the life of Mary, our Lord and of the Church. They also remind us that he is very much like us in our daily lives. We who many times have our hands full. We live in a society which seeks personal recognition, one which tries to create itself in its own image and likeness and not that of God. St Joseph did not seek recognition but lived as made in the image of God as God created him. He truly changed the world. As believers, we can do the same.
As we rejoice in the reality that God has taken our human flesh to Himself, we look at Joseph during the special year dedicated to him and pray that we may appreciate what he did in order to find peace and joy!
At the conclusion of his Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis asks us to pray to St. Joseph with the following words:
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To you God entrusted His only Son; in you Mary placed her trust; with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too, show yourself a father and guide us in the path of life. Obtain for us the grace of mercy and courage, and defend us from every evil. Amen.
A blessed Christmas to all!