On Christmas morning I was standing at the altar during the Offertory Hymn, staring at the really stunning stained glass rendering of the Nativity right over the reredos, and it occurred to me that I will never be half the man that St. Joseph was. It then occurred to me that I was pretty grateful for God not putting me in positions to prove how much of a man I am compared to Joseph, because who needs that trouble?
In the stained glass up there, Joseph looks sufficiently pious if just a little worn, and who could blame him? In nine short months, his fiance came up pregnant, angels started visiting him in his dreams, his family and friends were probably not particularly gracious about not stoning Mary to death, and then even Caesar started messing up his life, making him trudge off to Bethlehem for the pleasure of registering to pay his taxes. Joseph seems to losing a bit of hair off the top there, too, what with all the stress.
He must have known that things would not calm down when the Child was born, but that angel came back to tell him some more great news: yeah, that Baby, Herod’s going to try to kill Him, so you can’t even go home. The angel seemed to think that Egypt was sufficiently far away, and off they go again, this time with a baby.
They walked, of course, and the distance from Bethlehem to where the Holy Family most likely stayed in Egypt is roughly the same as walking from here to Canton, Ohio, if that entire way was through some of the most unforgiving land in the world.
If we walked to Canton right now, we could stop at the NFL Hall of Fame, which looks like the world’s biggest citrus juicer, but Egypt had its charms as well. There were an estimated million Jews in and around Alexandria, Egypt, in the first century, and so the Holy Family would have found some friendly faces, some food that landed somewhere in their dietary restrictions, and better shelter than they found in Bethlehem.
Now, Egypt was nice and all, but it wasn’t home, and so an angel once again visited Joseph, who was probably a little sick of that by then, and the angel told him to go back to Israel, because Herod was now dead. So up they went, but “upon discovering that Archelaus had become the new king of Judah, they fled to Galilee. Historically, Archelaus was such a violent and aggressive king that in year 6 he was deposed by the Romans, in response to complaints from the population. Galilee was ruled by a much calmer king, Herod Antipas, and there is historical evidence that Galilee had become a refuge for those fleeing the iron rule of Archelaus.”1
Joseph was told to go to Galilee by God this time, which backs up my theory that Joseph was about done with the angels who kept showing up with news he didn’t necessarily want to hear. And so, finally, Joseph unpacks his family into a little house in Nazareth, and presumably gears himself up to be the defense, the shield, the teacher, the example, the foster father of the Son of the Living God.
We don’t really know how that went for Joseph. We only hear about him once more in the Gospels, when he and Mary managed to lose and then find the twelve-year-old Jesus, who stayed behind in the Temple when His family left for home and then gave them flack about it, proving my father’s opinion that middle-school boys are some of the most challenging people on earth, even if they are Jesus.
Joseph stayed quiet this whole time; maybe Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John thought they couldn’t repeat anything Joseph said, but more likely Joseph was the strong, silent type. Maybe in his foster Child’s last days, silently standing before Pilate with blood in His eyes and knowing the pain to come, Jesus thought of Joseph, His defense, His shield, His teacher, His example; and maybe He thought about the angels and the scandal and the flights to faraway lands, and then maybe He thought of the patience and the wisdom and the strength of Joseph, who prepared Him for that day.
May St. Joseph be your be your shield, your defense, your teacher, and exemplar in this new year, which I pray is blessed in every way, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
1Flight Into Egypt, Wikipedia.