He remained open and was prepared to take risks...

Published on 16 Mar 2017

It happened during a trip to Aylesford Friary in Kent. It was a sunny day, but stepping into the chapel of St Joseph I was immersed in gloom and chilliness.  As I ventured forward I was confronted by a huge wooden sculpture whose presence seemed to dominate the entire chapel. But there was no mistaking that this larger than life figure was Joseph the saint and the carpenter from Nazareth. I stood rather uncomfortably glued to the spot (if I remember) and unable to take my eyes off Joseph, remembering only a little while later to pray on the kneeler at his feet. I have never imagined Joseph to be a man of great drama but he did a pretty good job of making himself known to me that day.

Joseph is not one of those New Testament figures who occupies the limelight, or who indeed we know much about at all beyond what the Gospel narratives tell us. On the surface at least Joseph would appear to be a conventionally pious Jew. St Matthew tells us he was an “upright man” who when he discovers Mary his betrothed is pregnant decides on divorce “to spare her disgrace”. It was only after Joseph had made up his mind to do this that he had a dream in which the “the Angel of the Lord” appeared calling him not simply by name but conferring on him the title of “son of David”. The Angel tells Joseph not be afraid to take Mary into his home for the child that Mary will bear will be the saviour of his people.

Joseph could have dismissed the dream as a simple fantasy, it would certainly have been much easier for him to do so. He could then have focused on living a “normal life”, making himself a decent living and we would never have heard of him again.

But that would have been to go against God’s plan and perhaps this devout and upright man understood this more clearly than scripture lets on. I imagine Joseph to be a man who kept a calm head, he was a practical down to earth sort of person who knew what it was to keep a carpenter’s workshop going. But he was also a man of faith who perhaps against his better judgement understood that God sometimes communicated his ways not simply through tradition or scripture but directly through the power of dream. Joseph did not have the luxury of hindsight but he must have grasped that in this confusing set of circumstances God was beginning to work out his purposes and that he “Joseph son of David”, the carpenter, had a part to play in them.

If the early gospel narratives are sketchy and tell us little about Joseph, we do nevertheless get hints of the man as events unfold. I imagine Joseph to be the sort of person who took his obligations seriously – once he grasped the seriousness of the situation he was ready to act. So any hopes he may have had for an easier life once Jesus was born are put to one side after the visit of the Magi. Once again the Angel of the Lord visits him in a dream warning him this time of Herod’s murderous intentions towards the child. Joseph does not hesitate, he leaves the place, taking Mary and Jesus with him that very night.

Joseph is one of those unsung heroes in the gospel who having made his appearance exits from the drama, his whereabouts and end remaining a complete mystery. The fact that he simply disappears is perhaps in keeping with the man who is more intent in making sure that those closest him are safe and looked after than drawing attention to himself.

Joseph the worker has traditionally been a figure that people have gone to for help. That great wooden statue I was confronted with at Aylesford says a lot about his reputation for solidity and reliability. But Joseph is not just some object set in stone that doesn’t budge an inch. Joseph, as the gospel suggests, was a man who was prepared to bend, to listen and to change direction if need be. The impression he gives is of quiet strength, a man who didn’t bark out orders and then expect to be obeyed. Rather he remained open, was prepared to take risks, to confront possible ridicule and accept the consequences. We do not know how he felt about not being Jesus’ biological father, but there is no mention anywhere in the gospel of him abandoning a child who by all accounts gave him and Mary the run around!

John Bateson-Hill

Prayer to St Joseph

Saint Joseph, patron of the universal Church, watch over the Church as carefully as you watched over Jesus, help protect it and guide her as you did with your adopted son.

Amen