I have searched the Gospels for evidence of the influence of his parents on his life: the way he handled himself, the way he responded to people and things, the way he set his priorities, the way he reacted negatively to certain kinds of people, and the way he showed such skill at “reading” people and knowing just how to “find” them, and with such courtesy, in their most private, interior selves.
The Holy Trinity raised up Jesus the Christ at His resurrection and then at His ascension, but it was his parents who raised him. We should be able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to perceive in the Gospels signs of their good work in him.
We make a mistake when we assume that Jesus’ personality was mostly, or even solely, “of heaven”. There is much we are given to learn about him by taking seriously that he became incarnate (into flesh) through his human parents. In an analogous way, parents may ponder how when they desired to have a child, they brought that desire to their human bodies for help, so that their desire might through their bodies “become flesh and dwell among us”; that is, their child.
But what if we meant by “incarnate” a life-long process by which a human being, any human being including Jesus, learns how to “own” his or her humanity (its spiritual aspect and its bodily aspect) through the development of his or her personality? It is one thing to be born a human being and quite another to learn how to become incarnate: to get good at being a body and a spirit, learning through a lifetime of practice how to be a person and a good one.
So, what if Incarnation in this theological sense refers to the God-Man not just at the moment the Second Divine Person (eternally begotten Son of the Father) was conceived (made incarnate) by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary of Nazareth, not just when the holy child was born in Bethlehem of Judea, and not just when the 30-year-old Jesus heard after his baptism by John the Baptist the words, “This is my beloved son”? What if the Incarnation is a word describing the whole process of Jesus’ life – his becoming the person that he was every day and in every decision that he took until that Friday, on the Cross, when he said, “It is finished”?
In this regard, it is important for us to learn how to contemplate what the Gospels do not give us to see directly: the way Jesus was raised by his parents. From age 12 (the only story that the Gospels give us from Jesus’ youth) to age 30 when he made himself known – “Look, there is the Lamb of God / the One who takes away the sin of the world” – we are given no stories about Jesus’ upbringing. And so, we have to attend to who he was in his public life and then, pondering what we notice about him there, to look for the signs of his parents’ influence in his life.
We can be sure that this effort we make to understand the work of his parents, with the Holy Spirit helping us to see and to understand what of themselves they poured into Jesus, deeply honors Jesus. How could it not?
An Advent Text – Matthew 1:18-24
And so, we come to this Advent text: Matthew’s version of how the birth of Jesus came about.
I propose that even before Jesus was born, Joseph had already marked the personality of Jesus with something profound in his (Joseph’s) own personality. What if the DNA strands (nature) inherited by a child from his parents (in this case, from his mother) are finally less significant than are the spiritual capacities cultivated in the inner life of his or her parents (their personhood), which get communicated to the being of their child?
Joseph Adopts Jesus as His Son – Matthew 1: 18 This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph;e but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.* 19 Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally.f 20 He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lordg appeared to him in a dreamh and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.* 21 She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to savei his people from their sins.’* 22 Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:j
23 Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son
whom they will call Immanuel,
a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’.* 24 When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; 25 he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birthk to a son; and he named him Jesus.*
Let us, as a way of “reading” this text from Matthew, contemplate the painting (above) by Mengs.
First, the outer (physical) strength of Joseph is striking. His muscles are clearly defined (so much like my own); his veins and arteries bulge suggesting the existence of a powerful heart beating in that broad chest. Contrast this with the “strength” of the Angel – we guess that it is Gabriel, the Archangel – which is not physical. Its strength has to do with its shining aspect – “the glory of the Lord shone round about them [the shepherds]”; the effulgence of divine Light pouring through its angelic form.
The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “effulgent” – “Shining forth brilliantly; sending forth intense light; resplendent, radiant.”
Second, we notice the courtesy of Heaven in the way that the Archangel approached Joseph, and from the side. Joseph, and perhaps just like you and me, would have been “sore afraid” if an Archangel had appeared to him when awake, facing him.
Luke 2: 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord pcame upon them, and the qglory of the Lord shone round about them: and rthey were sore afraid.
And so, the Archangel appears to Joseph “in a dream”.
But then consider how any man or woman preparing for a married life together spend a lot of time dreaming about that life. Before the fact comes the dreaming.
Third, yet consider how what the Archangel annunciates to Joseph will dash those dreams. Detonated inside the loveliness of his dream is a betrayal – she is with child, not his – a betrayal so searing that the Law demanded the killing of the offending party (and her lover). Yet, this betrayal was not only about Mary’s pregnancy “by another”; it was also about Mary not having told him what she had done – “Be it done unto me according to Your word.”
Only if we allow ourselves fully to explore what must have been going on inside of Joseph will we be able to perceive a specific “mark” on Jesus’ personality that will appear in the mature Jesus. It is this “mark” that I am working to reveal.
Mengs, captures the boiling intensity of Joseph: see those muscles bulging as if ready and able to flatten an enemy – he is powerfully inactive; notice the shadow over his face and heart (the spiritual darkness made obvious by the spiritual lightness of the Archangel); wonder about the deep lines of concern, worry, and confusion marking that face; guess at a man caught between having been wounded hiddenly and deeply, who is ready to strike out … at whom? “I have no idea what I am supposed to do with this.” And don’t miss that stout staff in his left hand – not a baseball bat but serviceable for hitting someone hard, making him pay.
Fourth, jealousy is one of the most powerful, viscerally-felt, and destructive emotions that a person may find burning within himself or herself.
The Oxford English Dictionary at “jealous” – “Troubled by the belief, suspicion, or fear that the good which one desires to gain or keep for oneself has been or may be diverted to another; resentful towards another on account of known or suspected rivalry.”
Even one’s dreams can be poisoned by such a toxin.
Does it not seem to you as you ponder the face of the Archangel that it perceives this jealousy and with great tenderness understands it, appreciating how and why Joseph is being tempted to succumb to it? That subtle smile has both sweetness and discerning insight in it. Yet, as an Archangel will do, it is pointing Joseph in the right direction opposite to where his jealousy and hurt is taking him. Listen to Gabriel say, “Joseph, you must go back to your Mary. She is terrified of what you will be feeling and what you will do. She knows that her life is in your hands, and how the Law is backing your (lethal) choice if you should choose to obey the Law.”
Fifth, to our astonished admiration, Joseph defeats the power of jealousy; he chooses not to use the Law against his betrothed, and thus directing attention away from his jealousy. And, technically speaking, he disobeys what the Law requires of him to do. Joseph wins this spiritual victory within himself not by ceasing to be jealous (that never works) but by loving something or someone more than his suspicions. We cannot tell whether Joseph is loving God, and God’s holy Messenger, more – Is that the more? No, I don’t think so. I think that the (super-human) grace given Joseph at this moment – “What will he do?” – was letting him experience a love for his betrothed greater than he had ever yet felt for her. (I think of what a parent exclaims at the birth of his or her child: “I had no idea that I had that much love, and depth of it, inside of me.”)
Matthew 1: Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him zin a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is †conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
The divine Light pouring from the divine presence standing next to him in his dream assails the shadow binding Joseph. And God, watching Joseph love Mary more, driving from himself the jealousy, understands this as Joseph loving Him more. (We probably also should notice that God is not jealous of Joseph.)
Notice the eloquence of that Archangel’s gesture, the hand, the finger, and that voice: “Joseph, she is over there. Go to her. This divine eruption in your lives will – trust me! – profoundly deepen your relationship. ‘All generations will call you (both) blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for you, and Holy is His name!’ Joseph, wake up now. Go to her. She needs you right now, and you need her.”
Matthew 1: 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home;
Sixth, and now this is the point that I have worked to get to. Recall how many times in the Gospel we see Jesus allowing the love that he feels for someone to override what the Law required him to do. For example, “Simon, do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44 – such a beautiful story and example of this) Or, for example, recall this:
John 8: 9 When they heard this, they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until the last one had gone and Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained in the middle. 10 Jesus again straightened up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 ‘No one, sir,’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus. ‘Go away, and from this moment sin no more.’* 
Each time that Jesus acted in this way (and there are other examples), does it not seem likely that he thought of his dad, Joseph, recalling how Joseph had saved his mom’s life during the nine months before he was born? His dad chose to follow what love directed him to do overriding what the Law expected him to do.
We have found a mark of Joseph in the mature personality of Jesus!
One of the emotions that vexes Christmas gatherings, appearing more often than one expects, is jealousy. I do not know why, except that it is a powerful temptation that strikes at a person’s or a group’s ability to dwell in the Christmas spirit. It seems an initiative of the evil one – what St. Ignatius of Loyola called “the enemy of our human nature” – to vandalize our holy days.
People get jealous of the gifts that others receive (by birth or inside of well-wrapped packages); feel jealous that someone’s family circumstances are more blessed than one’s own; suffer jealousy that someone looks healthier or more beautiful than oneself; get jealous that one’s part of the Christmas meal was praised less, or not at all, than one prepared by another; and so on.
So let us fortify ourselves against any chance that jealousy can get a hold of us, or into our gathered group, by praying this week with St. Joseph, wondering about him, about how he defeated jealousy. This is our practice.
The Cherry-Tree Carol (one of the very oldest Carols that we have; early 15th century CE).
Performances: Choir of Keble College, Oxford, Ave Rex Angelorum: Carols and Music Tracing the Journey from Christ the King to Epiphany (2020); José Feliciano, Feliz Navidad (1970)
Joseph and Mary or Joseph Was an Old Man
1. Joseph was an old man, And an old man was he, When he wedded Mary In the land of Galilee.
2. Joseph and Mary Walked through an orchard good,Where was cherries and berries So red as any blood.
3. Joseph and Mary Walked through an orchard green, Where was berries and cherries As thick as might be seen.
4. O then bespoke Mary, With words so meek and mild, ‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, For I am with child.’
5. O then bespoke Joseph, With answer most unkind, ‘Let him pluck thee a cherry That brought thee now with child.’
6. O then bespoke the baby Within his mother’s womb ‘Bow down then the tallest tree For my mother to have some.’
7. Then bowed down the highest tree, Unto his mother’s hand. Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph, I have cherries at command.’
8. O then bespoke Joseph – ‘I have done Mary wrong; But now cheer up, my dearest, And do not be cast down.
9. ‘O eat your cherries, Mary, O eat your cherries now, O eat your cherries, Mary, That grow upon the bough.’
10. Then Mary plucked a cherry, As red as any blood; Then Mary she went homewards All with her heavy load.
 I put it this way by way of emphasis and for rhetorical reasons: to highlight the significant role the parents of Jesus had in his formation as a person. The personhood of Jesus is what united and kept in harmonious relation his fully divine nature (capacities) and his fully human nature (capacities) – without letting one side dominate or intrude upon the other. But I have no idea how Mary and Joseph formed their remarkable son, recognizing in him both divine and human natures – seeing clearer on a particular occasion how one set of capacities (nature) was more forward than the other set of capacities (nature). I wonder if those who raise a brilliant autistic child, or a child (Einstein, Goethe, etc.) of unusually outstanding gifts, will have a better insight into what Mary and Joseph faced in the raising of their son.
 Well, to be perfectly technical about this, the unity of the God-Man’s human nature and divine nature is found in his person (in his personality; the way he unfolded or developed his divine and human natures through his decisions). This kind of necessary and careful set of thoughts is what the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE addressed, bringing several centuries of difficult thinking to a mutually agreed set of conclusions. What was most important about that agreement at the Council of Chalcedon is that many of its conclusions were about what the Church now knew were not true to conclude about the God-Man. But knowing what we do not mean is in fact a significant advance in our understanding.
* Ps 130:8; Si 46:1; Lk 1:31; Ac 3:16l; 4:12
 The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mt 1:18–25.
 Gabriel’s gender cannot be decided. The painter here refuses to decide for us. But then, do Angels have, or need to have, gender? To what end would gender be to them? Yet, ever since the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Trinity itself includes, as part of its own self-understanding, a fully human aspect (and humans are gendered). And according to the Communion of Saints, Heaven is filled with gendered Ancestors – “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
p ch. 24:4 (Gk.). Acts 12:7.
q ch. 9:31.
r Mark 4:41 (Gk.). See ch. 1:12.
 The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Lk 2:9.
 In Matthew’s Gospel there is an annunciation to Joseph; in Luke’s Gospel there is an annunciation to Mary.
z See ch 2:12.
† [Gr. begotten].
 The Holy Bible: King James Version, Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), Mt 1:20.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at “eruption” – “The bursting forth (of water, fire, air, etc.) from natural or artificial limits.”
 The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mt 1:24.
* 5:14; Ps 103:8, 13–14; Ezk 18:32; 33:11; Ex 13:21; Ps 27:1; 36:9f; 89:15; Ws 7:26j; Is 9:1; 49:6; 60:19; 1 Jn 1:5
 The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 8:9–11.
 See also: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/post-biblical-period/the-origins-of-the-cherry-tree-carol/
 There is this tradition that Joseph had to have been an old man, because how else could he have been able, or willing, to forgo forever sexual relations with his wife? Oh dear. How insulting this is to the gift Joseph chose to give, the reality he chose to accept, by giving away his youth, including his young manhood in this sacrificial way. I have far, far to go in my spiritual growth to get to an understanding of why the perpetual virginity of Mary was and needs to be the case. I just don’t get it.
Jennifer Mannino says
Another wonderful Advent meditation! Long ago I made a consecration to Mary, which led (soon after) to a consecration to Joseph.
I agree with your footnotes that he was not likely an old man, though I would suspect he was quite a bit older than Mary. My impression would be that she was perhaps 15, 16, 17 when the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her. It would make a great deal of sense for Joseph to have been in his mid-twenties up to maybe even mid-thirties. Not old, but older than Mary by a decade or more. The advantages of this being that he would be: 1. fully developed from a neurobiological & psychological development standpoint; 2. well established in his trades work. Both conditions together would set him up to be a most stable husband and father.
If he were on the older end of that window, he might have been 15-20yrs beyond Mary’s age, which would also easily explain why tradition has it that he died before Jesus. If he was 35 when they were married, it would be rather plausible that he’d have died in his 50’s to early sixties, before Jesus death. He certainly would have appeared grey-haired long before Mary if she was 15-20yrs his junior.
In this scenario, he wouldn’t be an old man when they were married, but significantly older than Mary. Still young enough for any abstinence required to be very meaningful. But, also old enough to have a greater stability with his sexuality, his hormones, desires, and the intimacy available to him within his own prayer life – intimate enough to accept the dreamworld of an angel!
That’s my speculation, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂
Jennifer Mannino says
Realized I have a following thought about Mary’s perpetual virginity and its importance. I would also speculate that a deeper understanding was given/explained to Joseph by the angel, why the “overshadowing by the Holy Spirit” aspect of the conception of Jesus was so important. If there was any physical sexual relationship between Mary and Joseph, that activity could have cast great doubt on whether or not Mary had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit alone to conceive Christ. To my mind this matters because as humans we put so much emphasis on a biological sexual relationship in the procreation of new life. I believe God really wanted to help us reset the emphasis on how procreation, the beginnings & fostering of new life really occurs. It’s a reset that we still have not fully made as humans. We still think in terms of an either a theology of the body or a theology of the spirit. Only rarely do we fully engage in a theology of both body and spirit together. But, I believe that is what God keeps attempting to bring us into engaging with throughout the liturgical year.
Bonny Crowley says
Good morning Rick,
I love this! So as I read it, it struck me that you embody “becoming incarnate” more than anyone I know. I have always been in awe of your intelligence but even more, your spiritual self. I know only less than a handful of people who I would say that about. Being in their presence gives me such a sense of serenity and peace. I can’t say that they don’t have flaws, but are a different type of spiritual. Since we are not “exactly” our parents….it seems to make sense that there may be some genetic component to ones ability to mature in their spirituality.
Thank you for the thought provoking meditations. Have a very merry and blessed Christmas!