St. Joseph and Sacrificial Love


(photo: Unsplash)

A friend who married in the 1950s told me that she was advised in marriage preparation never to refuse her husband conjugal intercourse. This pastoral policy was often understood as “once married, anything goes,” which is a prescription for indulging both legitimate desires and lust and also a couple’s unexamined approach to transmitting new life.

It is no wonder that some women, fearful of another pregnancy, fell for the hormonal contraceptive pill. What married couples did not realize is that by separating sex, love and procreation, the harmony in the family is damaged, if not destroyed.

In the Catholic teaching on the family, this harmony is maintained, and few saints better illustrate this point than Christ’s father on earth.


A ‘Just Man’

St. Joseph — the husband of the Virgin Mary, head of the Holy Family — teaches an important lesson. The Gospel of Matthew describes Joseph as a “just” man (1:19). In the Old Testament, such a description means that an individual is in right relationship with God. For the Jewish readers of St. Matthew’s Gospel, the word would have conjured a picture of Joseph as heir to the Covenant, fulfilling all the Law’s prescriptions on the family.

Since the family was the locus of faith for the Jews, Joseph wasn’t only a family man, but also a man of God; for as biblical scholar Joseph Atkinson points out, the Covenant between God and his people was passed down through the family. Therefore, since Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, how family life is lived is as critical in our own day as it was in Joseph’s. Yet, so strong is the drumbeat for contraception, few of our young people seem to understand that the Ten Commandments’ prescriptions against fornication and adultery are essential to the Covenant (Deuteronomy 4:13, 5:18, 22:13-30); they also seem unaware that the family as the “domestic church” is the sphere of holiness (Leviticus 19:1-2).

A key aspect of this holiness for Judaism is “Family Purity,” which orthodox Jews follow even today. A husband may not approach his wife during menses and for seven days afterward. He is expected to show respect for his wife at this time but to avoid physical caresses. Once his wife has immersed herself in the mikvah or sacred bath, conjugal relations may be resumed. Sexual discharges such as semen and menses were regarded as impure, because they are related to being born and dying. Anything remotely connected with death must not be allowed to enter the sphere of holiness of the eternal God (Leviticus 15:1-32). To avoid this impurity, the laws of family purity were devised.


New Covenant

However, something new entered salvation history when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb. The married love of man and woman now had a new divine dimension missing in the Old Covenant. The relations between man and woman ceased to be impure. For example, Jesus allowed the woman with a hemorrhage to touch him (Matthew 9:19-21). The Eucharist, which is at the heart of the New Covenant, is the Body and Blood of Jesus. In fact, in the 20th century, marriage has been seen as imaging divine Trinitarian communion.

Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, expresses this newness in this way:

“The Lord, Jesus ... has opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine Persons and the union of the sons of God in truth and love” (24).

This was a favorite quote of Pope St. John Paul II. In composing his monumental Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, John Paul saw the whole of salvation history unfolding this truth. While throughout salvation history the status of the Israelite wife was being elevated from the mere property of her husband (we saw, above, how the husband was called to respect his wife in the practice of family purity), each member of the family as equal in his/her humanity was first made radically present in the Holy Family as the hallmark of virginity. Thus, traditionally, the Holy Family has been seen as the icon of consecrated celibacy, which points to the resurrected state. In this state, although there is no marriage, perfect friendship, centered on God, exists between man and woman.


Restorative Covenant

It is the genius of Pope St. John Paul II, following on the development of Pope St. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and the work of other theologians, that he saw the implications of the Second Vatican Council’s teachings for the love between man and woman in marriage. Vatican II restored the language of covenant to marriage, a providential development for the domestic church. Indeed, John Kippley, a natural family planning pioneer, calls the marriage act a “renewal of the covenant.”

But it must be performed in such a way as to honor both man and woman as persons made in God’s image. Furthermore, John Paul II, with his emphasis on the person as gift, sees the practice of periodic abstinence — if having another child is inopportune — enhancing this self-gift, for if a person does not possess himself, he cannot give himself away as a gift.

This qualification does not negate the importance of generous procreation, but the transmission of new life must be approached according to God’s will and discerned, as the Pope says, by the couple as “ministers of creation.”


A Family Calling

God instructed St. Joseph in a dream to take Mary into his home,  and he unhesitatingly accepted God’s will, in spite of its cost. St. Joseph was denied the ecstatic experience of conjugal intercourse, but he was not deprived of love. Our culture, with its emphasis on sexual gratification (often self-administered) has forgotten the love that comes from radical self-gift.

St. Joseph was called in a radical way to give himself to the Holy Family. Once he had taken Mary into his home, he set out for Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. Denied accommodation at the inn when his pregnant wife was about to give birth, he accepted the indignity of a stable. Later, he was forced to flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous threats against the Child, returning after several years of exile.

Joseph fulfilled all the duties of an Israelite father — naming the Child, observing the Sabbath and going on pilgrimages and teaching the Torah. He was perpetually in the shadow of Mary, uttering not one word in the Gospel. It was Mary who exclaimed when they found Jesus in the Temple, “Son, why have you done so to us? Behold, in sorrow, thy father and I have been seeking you” (Luke 2:41). Joseph died before Jesus’ public life began.

Yet as part of the Holy Family, with Christ at its center, St. Joseph was surrounded with love. Like St. Teresa of Ávila, one of the first to promote devotion to St. Joseph, he is said to have died of love. Pope John Paul II also expresses this truth:

“Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love which he experienced as a man. And this love proved to be greater than this ‘just man’ could ever have expected within the limits of the human heart” (Redemptoris Custos, 19).

Pope St. John Paul II stresses that it was only Joseph’s deep interior life that made his self-gift possible. St. Joseph is, indeed, a model for today’s husband and father.

Mary Shivanandan, STD, is a retired professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.

Her most recent book, The Holy Family: Model Not Exception, was published earlier this year.