St. Joseph’s Angelic Encounters

THE JUBILEE OF ST. JOSEPH: No Humans Speak to St. Joseph in the Gospels — Only Angels Do

HANS THOMA, ‘THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT,’ 1879 (photo: Public domain)

The difficulty in sketching St. Joseph is that Scripture never shows him speaking. In fact, the Gospels never show a single human being speaking to him!

No humans speak to him; but four times an angel does.

Tradition makes much of Mary’s annunciation. But Joseph’s “annunciations” are also worthy of scrutiny — certainly for what they reveal about him, but also for what they reveal about angels. The Gospels present almost every episode in Joseph’s life as an encounter with an angel.

The first occurs shortly after he discovered Mary was pregnant. He knew that he could not be the baby’s father, and he decided to divorce her quietly.

But then an angel gave Joseph information he could not have figured out; and he gave clear instruction about what to do (Matthew 1:20-24). Joseph was to go ahead with the marriage — and stay in it. He was to name the child not according to the custom of his time, but rather for his mission. He would be called Jesus, which means “God is salvation.” It was Joseph’s right to name the Child, but it was an angel who delivered the right name to Joseph.

The angel made his second appearance to Joseph after the Child was born (Matthew 2:13). This time, the angel again served Joseph as a guide, but also a guardian. Joseph received help in figuring out what to do next, but also a stern warning about what he must flee.

The angel told Joseph that the mad and cruel King Herod was targeting Baby Jesus for destruction. Herod had an army at his disposal. He had absolute authority over every spot where Joseph might try to hide. Massacres were a hallmark of Herod’s reign. So this was serious business.

But heaven made sure that Joseph was at no disadvantage. In his second visit from an angel, Joseph was told what to do and where to go: He moved his family to Egypt.

The third angelic visit came after a year or more in that far country (Matthew 2:19). This time, the angel brought the family safely home to the Holy Land, because the Holy Land was waiting for its Messiah.

And the task of that third angel visit continued in a fourth (Matthew 2:22), which occurred on the family’s return journey. One last time, they eluded danger, thanks to a warning from Joseph’s angel — a warning that specified the region that would be safest for their relocation.

Those few scenes tell us almost everything we know about the man whom God chose to watch over his only Son. They tell us almost everything we know about the hero the Gospel praises as a “just man.”

What we know about Joseph is that he was devoted to the angels. He listened to them. He followed through on their instructions. By the time he had reached adulthood, he was accustomed to their promptings. He shows none of the fright we see in the stories of prophets like Balaam (Numbers 22:31) and Daniel (Daniel 8:17).

Devotion to the angels was common in his time. St. Luke lets us know that the Sadducees were the only Jews back then who did not believe in angels (Acts 23:8).

Devotion to angels stands in continuity with the Scriptures Joseph heard in the synagogue, for angels are everywhere in the Law, Prophets, Psalms and histories, and they were mentioned in the rituals celebrated on feast days.

Joseph lived, as his forebears had, in a world saturated with angels. Because he was a just man, he followed the traditions of his ancestors. He attended the customary services. He said the prayers. And because of these habits, he was alert to the angels’ presence and activity.

Modern readers have a tendency to reduce the lives of biblical figures to scenes that are preserved in Scripture. 

If we do this with Joseph, however, we might conclude that he was an unusual man, always in the midst of adventure. Those wild episodes were surely important in his life. But they probably occupied just a few days.

Unfortunately, the Gospels don’t give close-ups of Joseph’s ordinary moments at home. But neither do they leave us in the dark. 

What the Evangelists reveal is that Joseph’s reputation did not rest on his adventures. 

Apparently, he didn’t talk about them. When his neighbors thought about him at all, they referred to him as “the carpenter” — not the guy who traveled to Egypt, not the guy who beat Herod; just the carpenter.

Joseph was known for his work. Though God had chosen him for the greatest mission ever, he was an ordinary workingman. 

And he was no less ordinary for the fact that he was close to angels.

Why is this important? Because in the midst of every believer’s daily work, the angels are there, and God wants everyone to be alert to their promptings. This is not a gift for unusual people.

Joseph’s labor was demanding on muscle and mind. His worksites were noisy, with hammers and saws and voices. Yet, even there, he cultivated interior silence and the habit of prayer. Angels can help us do the same.

Theologians in later times have referred to Joseph as “the Angelic Man.” 

They do this, first of all, because he had at least four vivid encounters with angels — but also because he received in abundance the particular gifts of all the pure spirits in heaven. This argument is developed in the work of Jerónimo Gracián, a 16th-century friar who was spiritual director to St. Teresa of Avila.

In the pages of the Bible, Gracián identifies nine orders of pure spirits: angels, archangels, principalities; virtues, powers, dominions; thrones, cherubim and seraphim. 

Each grouping has its particular way of serving God. And yet, Gracián says, Joseph managed to fulfill the requirements of every group.

Like the angels, Joseph served as messenger between heaven and the Holy Family. Like the archangels, Joseph was given a task of utmost gravity; and his combat required direct engagement with evil.

And so Gracián continues through all the ranks.

 As the cherubim flanked the seat of God on the Ark of the Covenant, so Joseph and Mary flanked the earthly throne of the King of Kings.

 And like the fiery seraphim in heaven, Joseph burned with ardent love as he lived in the earthly court of Almighty God.

Joseph surpassed all the orders of heaven in excellence. 

For this reason, he received close attention from the angels themselves. In heaven he was already seen as a prince.

Yet he was no less ordinary for all that. He was no less — and no more — than “the carpenter.”

Gracián’s analysis has implications not only for Joseph’s life, but also for yours and mine. 

Through baptism, we have a place in the divine household (the Church) and have been called to share a table with Mary and Jesus (the Mass).

Like Joseph, you and I are able to serve Jesus constantly and in close proximity. 

Work need not be an interruption to our love. 

In Joseph’s work he loved his wife and Son, even when his labors took him away from home, even when his work required concentration, even when he was working in Egypt’s blistering heat.

Like Joseph, we can be “angelic” as we bear Jesus into the world — a world that still has its Herods who are hostile to the Lord.

God calls us, as he called Joseph, to be his messengers and powers. He calls us to cooperate with his angels in the middle of our neighborhoods and workplaces.

The angels work best with people they know best — people who have a habit of asking their help. That’s all the consent they need in order to work in our lives.

St. Joseph was the ordinary man, and yet he was angelic. 

Let future generations say the same about you and me.

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