Fearful or anxious? St. Joseph can relate — and help

5 mins read
St. Joseph
St. Joseph and the Christ Child are depicted in a stained-glass window at Immaculate Conception Church in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Pope Francis calls St. Joseph his “dearest friend.” Our current Holy Father is in the 2,000-year lineup of popes and saints who have set an example of devotion to Joseph since the beginning of the Church. This devotion arises naturally from Mary and Jesus, the first ones to love Joseph and be devoted to him. When it comes to growing in the spiritual life, Joseph is the sure guide we need: protector, defender, model, saint.

Both Matthew and Luke introduce us to Joseph before Mary. Matthew crowns his long genealogy with Joseph, telling us that he’s the son of Jacob, and the husband of Mary.

Luke gives us Joseph’s name before Mary’s, as well, even though he’s telling us the story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. The angel was sent from God to Nazareth to a “virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:27).

In reflecting on the Church’s millennial devotion and love, many remark on Joseph’s silence. That not a single word of Joseph’s is recorded in the Gospels has led to profound reflections on humility, service, trust and a variety of other virtues.

What is less noted is what we do have of Joseph — namely, glimpses of human emotion.

Joseph the carpenter
Georges de La Tour, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Both Gospel writers who tell us of Joseph are taken with him as a man of action, something particularly important to us as we remember him as St. Joseph the Worker.

Matthew gives as many as 20 of Joseph’s actions, described in verbs and adjectives (took, called, departed, remained, etc.). Luke also speaks of the actions Joseph carried out, though often emphasizing his activity in company with Mary: “They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord”; they “fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord”; “they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth,” etc. (cf. Lk 2).

So from the Gospels, it’s clear that Joseph is a man of silence and a man of action. But we can also see he’s a man of deep, deeply felt emotion.

Fickle, but part of us

We’re taught to mistrust emotion, and with good reason. Emotions are erratic and subject to all sorts of things out of our control — the shifting of hormones, a bad night’s rest or even a cloudy day. If we want to be free, loving adults, we have to acquire the habit of keeping our emotions firmly under the reign of our higher faculties of intellect and will. Without that habit, we are enslaved to a fickle faculty entirely out of our control. Even a brief look at the culture today shows us that this is a widespread problem.

Nevertheless, emotions are part of who God created us to be. To disregard or discount the importance of our emotions in the human experience is to fail to be fully alive, and as the saints tell us, the glory of God is man fully alive.

The Gospels recount a number of Jesus’ emotions — his marveling at someone’s faith, his rejoicing in the Spirit, his weeping at Lazarus’ death, his anguish in the Garden. Jesus is the perfect human, and he was a man of emotion. Surely he learned as a boy from his father in this realm, too.

Joseph’s emotions

The Gospels don’t reveal Joseph’s emotions as clearly or frequently as they reveal those of Jesus, but we can still see them.

Matthew describes Joseph with three words that surely involved emotion: “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this” (Mt 1:19, 20, ESV).

Matthew doesn’t tell us directly about Joseph’s emotional state in this situation, but knowing that he’s human, we can surmise that he might have felt anxiety, tension, and a wide range of other intense and uncomfortable emotions.

Even as spiritual writers will debate about what Joseph in this situation understood by faith (some say that he knew Mary couldn’t be at fault, and his tension arose from realizing that God was somehow involving him in a plan so much bigger than he was worthy of), still, he was considering, and unwilling, and came to a resolution. This denotes a process, and one that surely involved emotion.

St. Joseph
Adobe Stock

The next words from St. Matthew do specify an emotional experience. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “do not fear.”

“Be not afraid” is the most common exhortation in the Bible, repeated in various forms some 365 times. This must speak to how widespread the emotion of fear is in the human experience. It is the first of our emotions that the Bible names: Adam, hiding from God in Eden, says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid” (Gn 3:10, ESV).

Joseph felt fear at the options he faced — fear that something would happen to Mary, fear at what awaited him, fear of the unknown.

St. Joseph is not done with fear, of course. We can imagine that many, many of the moments of his life were characterized by it.

But the Gospels specify another occasion, this time saying directly that Joseph was afraid: “when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there” (Mt 2:22, ESV).

It’s interesting to note that this time in Jesus’ life is full of the most intense emotions of Scripture, both good and bad. The Magi, when they saw the star, “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Mt 2:10, ESV), and Herod, when he realized the Wise Men tricked him, “became furious” (2:16, ESV), which led to the slaying of the boys of Bethlehem and the “weeping and loud lamentation” (2:18, ESV).

Turning to Luke, we again find one of Joseph’s emotions, and, beautifully, it is spoken of and shared by Mary: “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety,” she tells young Jesus, lost and now discovered in the Temple (Lk 2:48).

While the two emotions spelled out by the Gospels — fear and anxiety — as pertaining to Joseph might seem few and natural, given his circumstances, still, isn’t it a consolation to find God’s word attributing emotion to Joseph? And even if there are only two mentioned, that’s two more than the number of words we have from him.

Emotions in the spiritual life

Emotions are natural. They are human, but tricky. We live in a culture that gives them a weight in decision making that they don’t deserve, thus allowing them to reign over us and cause destruction in marriages, families and whole communities and nations.

Their misuse — and our own experience of their capriciousness — makes us mistrust them. But, rather than ignore them, or reject them, we have to take a cue from Joseph, and his son, and learn to use them, channel them, empathize with others because of them, etc.

Master in prayer Jacques Philippe makes this observation about emotions in his book, “Thirsting for Prayer” (emphases mine):

“Too often in the recent life of the Church, believers have suffered from a failure to give its due place to their capacity to feel. One of the Psalms invites us: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:8). We have the right to ask for sense-perceptible graces, so that we can taste something of the mystery of God, the truths of the faith, with our bodies, senses, and emotions. Otherwise we will not be able to understand them and bring them into our lives in a dynamic way. All the methods of prayer and meditation that bring the senses into play, and call on our human ability to be moved, are perfectly legitimate.”

In this season, as we remember St. Joseph as Worker, showing the dignity to all work, may he, Jesus, and the saints and scholars teach us to be men and women of emotion too, as God intends.

Kathleen Naab is an editor and translator who writes about the Church and the spiritual life.