If only Christians would anticipate hardship as a given, if only they were aware that God’s calling, by design, is not furnished with red carpets and smooth roads, I believe that the Gospel of Life would be accepted by more people. In recent years I have come across both priests and lay people who were inspired by a kind of boldness of faith at the outset of their ministry. Yet, when they encountered rejection and hardships they drew back and had second thoughts about their mission. Indeed, they even asked themselves: “Is this supposed to happen? Is it supposed to be this hard?”
Yes, the best of Catholics have been rattled to the core when it became clear to them that they might have to sit by themselves at lunch or be rebuffed by fellow Catholics or that they might lose some privileges. Sadly, the lives of the Saints and their multiple hardships escape them. Even the inspiration that came with hearing the words of Christ is a distant memory: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
If anyone’s vocation deserved to be free from the hardships it was St. Joseph’s. After all, he was given the exalted task of protecting God and the Blessed Virgin. Yet from the word “go!” he encountered one hardship after another that could have been easily been prevented by God. In fact, he was given four hardships that gave him great anguish of spirit. If we but seriously meditate on his life we will never approach the work God has for us with the expectation that it should be without hardships. Rejection by our own people, scorn from others, the disappointment of failures, waiting for long periods of time, detours and even the appearance that the Lord himself has abandoned us will not throw us for such a loop. These obstacles will cease to be an excuse not to act and do the right thing! Following the example of St. Joseph, we too can press on and fulfill the mission the Lord has called us to.
Estrangement from His Spouse:
As I mentioned, there are at least four hardships St. Joseph had to endure. As for the first one, here is a short excerpt from a previous Sky View post entitled, St. Joseph and the Sword of Conflict:
“Have you ever wondered why, after appearing to the Blessed Virgin to announce the coming of Christ, the angel Gabriel did not immediately appear to St. Joseph in order to inform him that the Messiah would be conceived of the Holy Spirit; that God would make it possible for Mary to be both virgin and mother?
Instead, there was an interim period of misunderstanding and anguish on the part of St. Joseph. God could have prevented this misunderstanding but he chose not to. And the reason he chose not to was due to some moral and spiritual benefit St. Joseph would gain. Certainly, a lot of tears could have been spared; but often tears can be every bit as redemptive as the blood of martyrs which, as the early Christian adage goes, is the “seed of the Church.”
In his temporary emotional estrangement, St. Joseph, when having the wrong impression about his betrothed, had to rely on God. Indeed, during this short period of time not even the Mother of God could help him because, after all, she was the object of his suspicion and doubt. Alone he stood, confounded over God’s plan and anguished in spirit.”
However, the angel appeared to St. Joseph in a dream in order to vindicate the virginal integrity of Mary’s pregnancy. At last, his anguish was relieved. With a sigh of relief St. Joseph concluded that in good conscience he could remain the Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And to be sure, his joy of doing so was revived. But in a matter of a few short months two things were to happen simultaneously that would make his calling as a protector and bread-winner of the Holy Family that much more difficult. Indeed, his hardships were only beginning. After he weathered the first hardship, the second one was soon to follow.
The Edict: Leaving Home
The census edict was issued by Caesar Augustus enjoining the head of each household to register in their hometown just when Mary was due to give birth. From a human point of view, the timing could not be worse. And as for St. Joseph, he probably hadn’t been to his hometown in Bethlehem, where he was to comply with this edict, in quite some time. After all, the traveling distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem was at least a two to three day walk, maybe even more. And because of the edict, traveling from one town to another would be like traveling on a busy holiday. Scores of people would be frequenting the roads and the inns. By the time the Holy Family would get to Bethlehem, St. Joseph’s innate instinct as a husband and father to provide for his Family would be greatly challenged.
St. Joseph's second hardship then was leaving the security of his work and the comforts of his home when his Spouse needed the best kind of care for the birth of her first born child. Such was God's will. But as Jesus would say some thirty years later, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." This man of God would be forced to totally rely on Divine Providence. Once the Holy Family arrived in Bethlehem, another hardship awaited him.
Failure to Provide:
Certainly a man as good as St. Joseph would deserve the hospitality of Bethlehem, his hometown, and any accommodations it could afford to provide. Certainly a nice warm room or a spacious house would be made available to him. And certainly if he was called to make these sacrifices for the Son of God he would get a little cooperation from Divine Providence. God's ways are not our ways. The third hardship that was imposed on St. Joseph was certainly not to his liking. After all, there is no worse feeling for a man than to not be able to provide room and board for his family. A quick glance at this story and images of that cold Christmas night may give the average person warm feelings. But when one really sits down and meditates on the real historic details of that story, one cannot help but consider the angst and worry St. Joseph must have felt after having encountered one closed door after another. It is even conceivable that he was tempted to despair. What a failure he must have felt!
Regarding God’s chosen servants, Fr. Paul Marie de la Croix said that “sometimes they encounter a failure which he permits even though he has first assured victory; sometimes, for no apparent reason, they experience a reversal of God’s relationship to them. They seem to be permanently abandoned or even rejected, though divine favor and friendship had been theirs before. They have not been guilty of the slightest infidelity, but they must become fit for the final mystery of faith.” Indeed, in the eyes of the world being forced to seek shelter in a cave right outside of Bethlehem is not a blessing but a curse. However, it was the will of Jesus Christ himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, to be born in humble circumstances. It was fitting that the King of Kings be born in a grotto so that even the despised and yet humble shepherds would approach him and do him homage. Hence, little did St. Joseph know that what appeared to be a failure on his part was a great blessing for the world. The simplicity of the crèche and the manager was not only an invitation for the lowly but it would inspire virtues of detachment and a love of poverty among many Christians.
Off to a Foreign Land:
St. Joseph’s resignation to the designs of providence would pay off. Soon after Christmas night, the Magi brought with them gifts for the newborn Messiah. Among these gifts was gold. This would come in handy for yet another hardship St. Joseph would have to endure. Due to the three kings (the Magi) seeking the new born Messiah in Jerusalem, the jealousy of King Herod was provoked. He launched a military campaign to kill every last child under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem. However, God was one step ahead of this ruler. This is when St. Joseph’s fourth hardship kicked in. “The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.’"
“Wait a minute! Where are we going to stay? Just how long do we have to be in Egypt How am I going to provide for Mary and Jesus?” These were just a few of the unanswered questions St. Joseph could have asked. There was no indication as to how long they would have to stay. A short meditation of this episode will bring to our attention how difficult that must have been! Taking refuge in a foreign land amidst a foreign people for safety is one thing; but to do so without knowing for how long is a real test of faith. After six months in Egypt there was no dream telling him to go home; after several months- no dream; and after a year- again, no dream! Ancient tradition has it that the Holy Family lived in Egypt anywhere from two and half years to seven years. The Fathers of the Church differ on this point.
Nevertheless, in order for St. Joseph to fulfill his mission he had to have strength of character, the endurance of faith and a spirit of detachment. For a short period of time, he thought he would have to say good-bye to Mary, his Spouse. And Scripture indicates he was willing to do just that. He also was called to say good-bye to his work and home because of Caesar’s edict. And finally he was forced to say good-bye to his fatherland, namely, his country.
Yet, for all of his sacrifices the Lord blessed him with many years in Nazareth with Mary and Jesus as his companions. What a paradise that Nazareth home must have been! The family conversations, the love and the peace of that household had to be a microcosm of heaven. And just as important, he was blessed with Mary and Jesus at his side on his deathbed. Indeed, the Lord compensated for every hardship St. Joseph was willing to endure for his sake.
For us Christians who are called to protect and advance the causes of God how can we not expect hardships? But if we endure them faithfully and press forward as St. Joseph did, how can we not expect his blessings?