St. Joseph and the Nativity of 0ur Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The next fact in the life of St. Joseph, according to the Gospel narrative, is connected with the Nativity of 0ur Blessed Saviour:
"And it came to pass," says the Gospel, "that when they were there, her days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping night-watches over their flocks. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them, and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people. For this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord in the city of David. And this shall be a sign to you: You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. And it came to pass after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us. And they came with haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger" (Luke, xi, 6-16).
0h, thrice happy the lot of St. Joseph! The poverty and humiliations of the King of heaven in the manger only intensified his faith and love in the Incarnate Son of God. The shepherds heard the Angels, "the heavenly army," praising God. For of these heavenly spirits, "thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him" (Dan. vii. 10). Yet of all mankind then living only two were chosen by God to welcome, thank, adore, and love the long expected Messias! Who were the favourites of heaven? Who were those thus chosen by heaven? Mary and Joseph. The shepherds "found Mary and Joseph and the infant lying in the manger." We join Mary and Joseph; and with them, we welcome, adore, thank, and love the Divine Infant Jesus, our Blessed Saviour.
St. Joseph and the Circumcision. By God's command St. Joseph calls the Divine Infant Jesus.
By God's order every male descendant of Abraham was to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth: first, to distinguish the people of God from all the nations of the earth; and, secondly, as a covenant between God and His chosen people. "God said to Abraham: And thou shalt therefore keep my covenant, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant which you shall observe between me and you, and thy seed after thee. All the male kind of you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin that it may be a sign of the covenant between me and you. An infant eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations. . . . And my covenant shall be in your flesh for a perpetual covenant" (Gen. xvii. 9-13).
We have the authority of St. Ephrem for stating that this painful operation was performed by the hands of St. Joseph. But on this fact the Gospel is silent.
According to the Hebrew custom, each child received from his parents his name on the day of circumcision; thus on that day our Divine Redeemer received the holy and sweet name of Jesus. In calling the Saviour of the world by the adorable name of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had no choice; they were but obeying the orders of the Almighty God's ambassador; the Archangel Gabriel had said to the Blessed Virgin: "Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Jesus" (Luke, i. 30). 0f St. Joseph the ( Gospel says, "Behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. i. 20).
The name Jesus signifies Saviour; and is the most holy, the most sacred, and the sweetest name that can be pronounced by the tongues of men or Angels. "God," says St. Paul, "hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names. That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father" (Phil. ii. 9). The holy name of Jesus is all-powerful. "In my name," says Jesus to His disciples, "they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover" (Mark, xvi. 17). St. Peter said to the man lame from his mother's womb: "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise and walk. . . . And he leaping up stood, and walked, and went in with them into the temple, walking, leaping, and praising God" (Acts, iii. 6). The same St. Peter said to the Jews: "Neither is salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts, iv. 12). "The name of Jesus," says St. Bernard, "is honey in my mouth, music in my ear, joy and jubilation in my heart." 0 happy St. Joseph, who was chosen by God to confer the all-holy, and the all powerful name of Jesus upon the Redeemer of the world.
St. Joseph and the Flight into Egypt.
As we have seen in a preceding section, St. Joseph was chosen by the Almighty to help and protect the Blessed Virgin in the long fatiguing journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; and to supply the wants of Jesus and Mary at the Nativity. Far higher, holier, and more important now is the mission of St. Joseph. He is chosen by God to save the life of the Infant Saviour. This is the next fact narrated in the Gospel in the Life of our great Saint. "When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to adore him. And King Herod hearing this was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet. And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod privately calling the wise men learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them. And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way, and behold the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And entering into the house they found the child with Mary, his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went hack another way into their country. And after they were departed, behold an Angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt; and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy Him. Who arose and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod. That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: 0ut of Egypt have I called my Son. Then Herod perceiving that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning. Rachel bewailing her children, and they would not be comforted, because they are not. But when Herod was dead, behold an Angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph in Egypt, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For they are dead that sought the life of the child. Who arose and took the child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in the room of Herod his father, he was afraid to go thither; and being warned in sleep retired into the quarters of Galilee. And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was said by the prophet: that He shall be called a Nazarite.'' (Matt, xi). The first converts to Christianity were the shepherds; promptly they obeyed the voice of God's Angel announcing to them "tidings of great joy;" they went "with haste" to Bethlehem, and adored " the Infant lying in the manger." The next converts were "the wise men from the East." It is not our intention, nor is it within our scope, as St. Joseph alone is our theme, to dilate on their willing sacrifice to leave family, home, and country, to obey the call of God; their courage in seeking for the New-born Saviour in the city, nay, at the gates of the palace of the jealous and cruel tyrant Herod; their faith and confidence in God, when the star disappeared; their rich presents of "gold, frankincense, and myrrh;" and not shocked at the humility and poverty of " the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger;" but with firm faith and transports of joy "falling down," says the Gospel, "they adored Him."
Though the Gospel is silent on the matter, yet, with St. John Chrysostom, and other Fathers, we have no doubt but St. Joseph was present on this occasion, and was edified and consoled by the faith and piety of the Wise Men of the East.
Herod, deluded by the Wise Men, and fearing that the new-born King would be a rival for his throne, ordered his soldiers to murder all the male children of two years of age and under, in and around Bethlehem, thus making sure of the death of the newborn King. Quickly and cruelly the work of death was done; the shrieks of the mothers, whose babes were butchered in their arms, rent the air, and copious were the streams of tears round Bethlehem, "Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted because they are not." The cruel tyrant has done his work, and now feels satisfied that there exists no rival to his drone.
How vain and foolish for man to think to frustrate the designs of the Almighty! "The kings of the earth stood up," says the sacred text, "and the princes met together against the Lord and against his Christ . . . He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them, and the Lord shall deride them'' (Ps. ii. 1). So it was with the Almighty, and King Herod. Whom did God make use of to save the life of the new-born Babe? St. Joseph. To whom did God send His heavenly messenger? To St. Joseph. "An Angel of the Lord," says the Gospel, "appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the Child and his mother, and fly into Egypt, and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the Child to destroy him. Who arose and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod" (Matt. ii. 14). Jesus as God could protect Himself, and by His very breath wither His foes. His heavenly Father might have sent His Angel to slay the tyrant and his armed host, or to protect the Divine Babe with his outstretched wings; but no. Angels and heavenly Spirits were passed over. The adorable Trinity fixed upon our Saint for the holy work. 0 thrice happy Joseph! selected by the Almighty to be the instrument of saving the life of the Saviour of the world.
Prompt and quick was the obedience of St. Joseph; reverentially and lovingly did Mary fold the Divine Infant in her warmest mantle, press Him to her chaste bosom; and the Holy Family set out on their journey. St. Joseph's assiduous care lightened the fatigues of the way. "The holy Virgin and St. Joseph asked a benediction of the Divine Infant, which He gave in a manner not to be mistaken. Then gathering their humble garments, they departed without further delay, a little after midnight; making use of the same beast of burden, which they had brought from Nazareth to Bethlehem" [Cite Mystique). 0 happy the hands privileged to minister to the wants of Jesus and Mary!
The length of the journey from Bethlehem to Heliopolis is computed at four hundred miles. Of this distance only some sixty miles were inhabited, the rest of the way being a perfect wilderness. The still solitude that reigned round the Holy Family during this long journey was only broken, now and again, by the roaring of the wild beasts that roamed through the desert. The Holy Family had nothing to fear from the wild beasts. We can easily conceive how the lions, the lords of the forests, and other savage animals, recognised the God of nature and crouched to lick the feet of the Infant Saviour. "We can also conceive how the trees lowered their branches, and St. Joseph plucked wild fruit to refresh Jesus and Mary. 0n their way through the desert the Holy Family stopped and rested at Matorea. Here, according to an ancient popular tradition, a large tree bowed to the ground rendering homage to the Infant God as He passed by.*
Great no doubt must have been the privations and sufferings of the Divine Infant Jesus and His Blessed Mother during this long and fatiguing journey. St. Joseph was chosen by God to be their protector, and to lighten as best he could the burdens of the way.
The sorrows and joys of the journey are described as follows by a celebrated Contemplative :—" In traversing the desert it was absolutely necessary that they should pass the nights in the open air, and without shelter, as it was in the winter. The first night, which overtook them obliged them to stop at the foot of a bill. The Queen of Heaven seated herself on the sand, with her Son in her arms: and they supped on what they had brought from Gaza. St. Joseph raised a sort of tent with his mantle and some sticks, so that the Incarnate Word with His holy Mother should not be exposed to the night air. St. Joseph slept upon the ground, his head supported by a little box of clothes and their other poor apparel. The following day they continued their route, and then their provision of bread and fruit failed them, so that the Mistress of the universe and her holy spouse, feeling the pressure of hunger, found themselves in the direst distress. They passed one of their first days of their journey till nine in the evening without nourishment. Our Blessed Lady thus addressed the Most High; 'Eternal and Almighty God! I offer Thee thanks, and I bless Thee. How, being only a poor useless creature, how shall I dare ask anything for myself? But have regard to Thine only Son, and grant the means to sustain His natural life, and to preserve that of my spouse.'
"The Queen of creatures commanded the elements not to offend their Creator, and to reserve for her their rude attacks. The Infant Jesus, to recompense this loving care, gave command to His Angels, and they formed a luminous globe impenetrable to the weather, which enclosed their God-made man, the Blessed Virgin, and her spouse. This protection was bestowed on other occasions also while crossing the desert. When food was wanting the Lord helped them by the ministry of Angels, who furnished them with bread and excellent fruit, and brought them besides a beverage of delicious flavour. Upon this they sang canticles of praise to the Lord who feeds all flesh at a convenient season .... The Most High, not only took care to nourish our pilgrims, but He also offered them sensible recreations to soothe the weariness of the way. It often happened that the Blessed Mother, passing with the Infant God, was speedily surrounded by large numbers of birds. The Blessed Queen received them, and commanded them to praise their Creator; the birds obeyed, and the devoted Mother recreated the Infant Jesus in the sweetest canticles. The holy Angels joined their voices to that of our lovely Lady. None of the miracles wrought in favour of the Jewish people are worthy to be compared with those which the Lord wrought during this journey for His Son made man, the august Mother and St. Joseph, to preserve the natural life on which depended the salvation of the human race." (Venerable Maria of Jesus of Agreda, Cite Mystique de Dieu).
In what City, and How Long did St. Joseph stay in Egypt?
Egypt at this time was studded with great and populous cities; but in what city or town the Holy Family took up their residence we know not for certain, as the Gospel is silent, and ancient writers differ in opinion. Some are in favour of Hermopolis; others give the honour to Alexandria, but St. Thomas, St. Anselm, and Suarez, who cite in their favour the traditions of the East, are of opinion that the Holy Family took up their abode in Heliopolis, a populous city, seven miles distant from the famous Memphis. Many Jews lived in this city, where they were treated kindly by King Ptolemy and the Egyptians; here also they possessed a magnificent temple, built by 0nias, at which they worshipped the God of Israel.
How long the Holy Family resided in Egypt we know not. 0ne thing is certain that our Blessed Lord left it before He attained His twelfth year; for at that age we find the "Child Jesus" in the temple disputing with the doctors. Some writers put down St. Joseph's stay in Egypt at less than a year; others fourteen months; St. Thomas makes it seven years,* and the celebrated Baronius undertakes to prove that our Divine Saviour returned home as He was entering on His ninth year. Suarez adopts this opinion as most probable.
During the stay in Egypt, whether of few or many years, St. Joseph supported Jesus and Mary by the labour of his hands.
We could never for a moment believe, with some writers, that abject poverty, at least in any degrading form, was the lot of the Holy Family in the strange land of Egypt; such a state would not be suited to the descendants of the royal House of David. Some are of opinion that St. Joseph reserved some part of the gifts offered by the Wise Men of the East, to pay the expenses of the journey, and to support the Holy Family in the strange land of Egypt. 0thers imagine that the rich Jews there in Heliopolis were only too glad to share fortunes with the distinguished strangers. But in any case, St. Joseph by his avocation was well able, not only to meet the pressing wants, but even to supply the suitable comforts to Jesus and Mary. During the journey and stay in Egypt, the presence of the Infant Jesus put the demons to flight; and in many places cast to the ground the false idols; thus fulfilling the words of the Prophet: "Behold the Lord will enter into Egypt and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence" (Isai. xix. 1).