Imagining What the Death of St. Joseph May Have Been Like


Detail of Francisco Goya, ‘The Death of St. Joseph,’ 1787
Detail of Francisco Goya, ‘The Death of St. Joseph,’ 1787 (photo: Public domain)

(Editor’s note: The following essay is a work of fiction.)

The Bible doesn’t contain a narrative about how St. Joseph died. The traditions of the Catholic Church teach varying narratives, but none of them are certain. This is how I imagine the earthly father of Jesus completing his earthy life.

It’s a hard and hazardous life, making your living in the common trades. Joseph of Nazareth is a carpenter, and a good one, but he has fallen from a ladder in his workshop.

The carpenter who has raised Jesus — true God and true Man — is still relatively young and strong and courageous. Everyone knows the fall is serious, but, seeing Joseph’s strength and calmness and knowing his character, they cannot help believing he will recover. Joseph, however, knows how serious his injuries really are. But he is a man of deep faith and prayer. Through fidelity to his unique vocation and love for the Blessed Virgin and for Jesus, and through their love for him, he has learned, above all things and in all things, to trust God.

It has been a couple of weeks since the accident. Jesus has been overwhelmingly busy fulfilling the commitments of the family business and necessities of the home and — as always — the care of his mother. He is worried about his father but is certain of Joseph’s quiet demeanor and continued zest for people and life and the joy it produces in him and all who come to visit him. He hears the comments as the well-wishers leave, too: “How is it that we came to cheer and encourage him, but we are the ones who leave cheered and encouraged?” and “May the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless this loyal son of Israel.”

It is possible that, in the short time since Joseph’s injury, Jesus has come to love and respect his earthly father to a degree he had previously not known.

Mary is also outwardly calm and, as always, optimistic, seeing and putting the needs of others before her own. On the inside, however, she cannot help being concerned — she loves Joseph so much and stays by him night and day.

A couple of days later, Jesus is putting together a table at the house of a local customer when two young relatives come running, out of breath, yelling with concern, “Jesus! Come quickly! Joseph has taken a turn for the worse!”

The Son of God drops everything and begins sprinting through the dusty, narrow streets toward his home. 

In his urgency, he collides with a small boy. Looking down and seeing the bewilderment and hurt in the young lad’s eyes, he stops, kneels down, uprights the boy and kisses his forehead — which elicits a great smile from the little fellow. Jesus is immediately back on his way.

Seeing the crowd outside the house and the looks on their faces, Our Lord knows. He does not pause but enters the small two-room house immediately. His father is in the back room in the bed he has been confined to for three weeks, and as Jesus walks in, he surveys the situation. He sees the downcast looks and tears on the faces of his relatives. 

He sees his father, barely conscious and pale in his bed — his cross. And last, he sees his blessed and holy Mother, sitting a few feet away in a chair with her head bowed in prayer, her tears falling on the dirt floor.

In a commanding and authoritative voice, which leaves no room for discussion, he orders everyone to leave the room except his weeping mama.

Jesus moves to the bed and bends down on one knee. The Author of Life takes Joseph’s hand and places his other on the forehead of his earthly father, turns his eyes to heaven and starts to pray out loud, “Father …”

But Joseph immediately interrupts, his eyes — tired and worn as they are — now open, alert and intense, as he says slowly, “Son, it is not yet your time. It is mine. Your time will come, but it is not now.”

Jesus cannot restrain his humanity any longer, and tears pour down. Through quite a sob, filled with sorrow and respect, he asks, “Father, how will I know when my time has come?”

Joseph looks his son in the eye, and they pour love and affection into each other that defies human description.

Then, without a word, this poor carpenter from a little corner of nowhere turns his head to the woman whom all generations forever will indeed call blessed and whose image 2,000 later will be the most reproduced in the history of the world. His eyes brighten to the degree only the purest and chaste love can produce, and they meet in the eyes of the Mother of God.

All the things they have been through together are recalled and relived in a few precious minutes: not only the Annunciation and Nativity, the proclamation of Simeon, the flight and return from Egypt, the loss and finding of their 12-year-old son, but also the quiet moments and conversations hidden from history. A smile beaming as bright as the sun itself comes across Mary’s face — yes, Mary, because that is who she is to her beloved husband.

When these moments of love’s reminiscences are complete, and without taking his eyes off his love, Joseph speaks slowly but with all the power and clarity of his best day: “Son, love the Lord your God, the God of our fathers — your real Father — with all your mind, with all your heart, and with all your strength; and stay close at all times to your Mother, and she will lead you to your time.”

This special man turns his head back and closes his eyes. Jesus puts his hands on both sides of Joseph’s head and his lips on his forehead, and while there are no words spoken aloud, our brokenhearted Lord hears in his earthly father’s heart, “I have seen, held and raised the fulfillment of your promise of salvation to your people, and I now surrender my soul to your holy will.” And Joseph, servant of God and our father and lord, breathes his last and dies a happy and holy death.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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