This pandemic has been an experience of love and resilience amid turmoil and uncertainty, which has prompted me to think often of St. Joseph. The foster father of Jesus knew well what it was like to face instability and doubt. Maybe that’s why Pope Francis has invited us to embrace this saint this year — his announcement of 2021 as “the year of St. Joseph” might hold some insights for us as we navigate the end of this pandemic.
The Gospels don’t share any words that Joseph spoke, but they do tell how he reacted to extraordinary situations with humility. When he learns that his fiancée Mary is pregnant, Joseph decides to divorce her quietly so that she will not face public scrutiny. Amid the hurt of what seems like betrayal, he does not retaliate by drawing attention to Mary. Instead, he tries to preserve her reputation and maintain his own integrity.
At least that’s the plan until an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid — that the child Mary is carrying is special. Without question, St. Joseph welcomes Mary as his wife and commits to Jesus as if he were his own son.
Until now, I had not thought much of Joseph’s yes to God’s will in this moment. I just thought, Well, he’s a saint and God told him what he needed to do, so he just did it. While it’s completely true that Joseph displays incredible trust, it does not mean his decision made his life easy.
It was probably tempting for him to look back on simpler days, but I bet he made the mental decision to be where his feet were.Even though he knew what God was asking of him, things became increasingly more complicated. Soon he was traveling the long journey to Bethlehem with a very pregnant Mary; desperately searching for a place to rest when she goes into labor, finding only a stable; and fleeing as refugees to Egypt after a dream warns him they are in danger.
My struggles are incredibly small in comparison, but Joseph’s example helps me to live with my feet grounded in the present moment. Too often, I look back and long for the world we knew before Covid, when we were not in constant fear of the virus, living without masks and isolation and travel restrictions. There are so many freedoms we took for granted, but for now we have to live within the confines of the virus.
That means that my life is pretty small — hidden, even. I see few people in person. Coffee shop runs have become my main outings. And as I handwash face masks in scalding water over my bathroom sink, I often mutter: What is my life?
So many times over the last year, I have asked myself, Does a hidden, unseen life have value? Are these pandemic years wasted or lost? What could these years have been for me if the virus hadn’t sent my trajectory in a completely different direction?
Joseph shows me the value of quiet life. He also shows me that purpose in life is not mine to determine. After the dramatic events surrounding Jesus’ birth, Joseph’s life got pretty quiet. When it was safe to do so, he brought his family from Egypt to Nazareth. Other than losing Jesus in the Temple, the Bible is silent about Jesus’ youth, adolescence, and young adulthood with Mary and Joseph. It’s safe to assume that their family life looked pretty typical and didn’t stand out in any way.
Joseph’s hidden years with his family probably seemed ordinary to those around him. Tradition holds that Jesus and Mary were with Joseph when he died, before Jesus began His public ministry. Joseph never lived to see the work, death, and resurrection of the wise, strong foster son he had raised. He may not have known or fully understood the purpose of those quiet years, but he trusted that God did. And God used Joseph’s labors to prepare Jesus for the work that changed the world and saves us all.
I don’t need to know the reason why the pandemic has cornered me into a quiet, hidden life. All I need to know is that God has a reason and can draw good things from this time. The rest is out of my control and really isn’t even my business.
What I can control is the attitude with which I approach every day. I can look at myself and complain that my life is not exactly as I would have it. Or I can roll up my sleeves and look outside myself to see how I can serve and be strong and love. I think that’s what it means to be holy, and it’s definitely not easy.
I won’t do it perfectly, that’s for sure. But when I fail, when doubts creep in, or when the world just plain stops making sense, I’ll turn for help to St. Joseph.