US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Overlooked in nativity drama, Joseph is the quiet hero

By Peggy Fletcher Stack | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

c. 2013 Salt Lake Tribune

(RNS) Imagine being Joseph, the husband of Mary and stepdad to baby Jesus. Your fiancée is pregnant and not by you. Her baby is adored by many, who flock for just a glimpse of the newborn son. You are tasked with protecting them both. It is your job to teach a kid — seen as the son of the Almighty — how to work, how to pray, how to heed God. To top it off, you are the only imperfect member of the Holy Family, so when mess-ups happen, guess who gets the blame.

“How do you live in a family where everyone is perfect except you?” asked Father Kenneth Vialpando, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ogden, Utah. It took a lot of humility, Vialpando said, for Joseph to live with his wife, Mary, who was “full of grace,” and with Jesus, who was sinless. “He had to take responsibility because, of course, it couldn’t be Mary’s fault or Jesus’ fault—God forbid.”

Joseph’s quiet heroism often goes overlooked in the Christmas story and in many Nativity scenes, where kings, angels, shepherds, sometimes cattle, upstage him. He doesn’t even make it into most paintings of mother and child. Yet there is something profound and compelling in Joseph, who has become a patron saint to Roman Catholic stepfathers and a role model for all Christian dads.

“In a real sense, none of our children are our own,” New Testament Mormon scholar Eric Huntsman wrote in “Good Tidings of Great Joy: An Advent Celebration of Christ’s Birth.” Joseph, then, looms as the prototypical father figure, one who plays a unique role in Christian scripture. 

And it all started with some, uh, inconceivable news. Not long after they became engaged, Mary tells Joseph, so the Bible says, that she is pregnant but has not had sex with any man. It was his faith that “enabled him to stand by Mary’s side every step of the way,” Vialpando said, “even when he couldn’t see the whole picture.”

Later, Joseph had another angelic visitor, who warned him in a dream of impending danger from Herod’s troops. So he took wife and child and fled to Egypt. Later, the family returned to Nazareth to rear the boy who someday would stump religious authorities, perform miracles, preach powerful sermons and die on a cross. And, Christians believe, return from the dead.

Some apocryphal accounts have Joseph living to old age, but he exits the biblical text after a 12-year-old Jesus is found speaking in the temple. Unlike most Christians, Catholics believe Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, making her husband chaste by default. “Joseph himself had to live a life of chastity and celibacy within his marriage to Mary, and therefore he is known as St. Joseph, the Most Chaste Spouse of Mary,” Vialpando said. “He must have been the most patient person of all.”

The Bible mentions that Jesus had brothers, so some traditions depict Joseph as an older man, who might have become a widower with children. Whether young or old, Joseph made sacrifices that every father—biological, adopted, foster, or step—sometimes faces.

For Tony Hanebrink, a longtime member of Ogden’s St. Joseph Catholic Church, the key to being a good stepfather is to love the child’s mother. Hanebrink had never been married 20 years ago when he wed Diane, a divorced mother of two boys, 10 and 6.

“I had this absolutely wonderful wife who loved the boys and she loved me,” Hanebrink said. “My love for them grew relatively quickly. They were good kids then and are good men now — it’s easy to love them.”

That’s how Joseph likely felt. “He loved this woman very much,” Hanebrink said. “He protects her, believes in her and makes the best of the situation.” There was probably gossip about Mary around the town well and many likely thought he was a fool, Hanebrink said, but Joseph assured his betrothed, “We’ll get through this.”

The Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor at Salt Lake City’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and a divorced father of two daughters, feels inexorably drawn to the stepdad in Bethlehem. Klemz married Norma Gonzalez in 2001 and soon adopted her two children, Tiffany and Abel. After high school, Tiffany left home, was involved in a romantic relationship and then returned, pregnant. She was living with the pastor and his wife when she gave birth to Micah Steven Klemz.

That’s when Joseph’s story began to be especially meaningful to Klemz. He was there for his grandchild’s birth. The first time he held the baby, he was overcome with emotion. “That’s what love does,” he said. 

Legally, Joseph could have rejected his pregnant fiancee. He could have held her up to scorn, ridicule and possibly even stoning. That would have been an acceptable response in that culture, explained Huntsman, professor of ancient scripture at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. Female virginity in that context was closely guarded as important to inheritance and property. “There are few examples in ancient text,” he said, “of someone who knowingly raised someone else’s child.”

Fathers in that culture were the dominant figures in a family, not inclined to bend to a woman’s needs. Joseph presents a different model, Huntsman said. “Instead of ruling or presiding, he is serving, caring and nurturing, putting aside his own needs for those of his wife and baby.”

For Vialpando, the Ogden priest, Joseph’s role is central to the Christmas story. The man who found room in a stable where his wife could give birth “can teach us that we too must enter into Bethlehem and allow Bethlehem to enter into us,” Vialpando said, “by recognizing and believing that this whole season is not about consumerism and materialism.”

It’s about Jesus—and about the good mother and father who reared him.