Discover more from Missio Dei
The Seven Sorrows of St. Joseph
Most Catholics are familiar with devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary, but may not realize that Joseph, too, endured his own set of trials. These sorrows, tempered with seven joys, help us to view our own suffering in a renewed light. Through prayer and the intercession of St. Joseph, we can come to fully embrace the truth that “all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well,” as fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich heard God tell her.
The first sorrow of St. Joseph was his shock when he found out that his beloved, Mary of Nazareth, was with child. Obviously the child wasn’t his, so what was he to do? He couldn’t quite believe Mary had been unfaithful, but at the same time the facts of her pregnancy were undeniable. Or perhaps he understood, deep within his soul, that Mary was with child by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he felt unworthy to be her spouse. She was blessed among women, beloved by God. Who was he to be a part of such a great, mind-shattering miracle?
And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.
We’ll never know how Joseph must have felt at such an amazing revelation, but we do know that God didn’t leave him shrouded in uncertainty for long.
But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.’
Reassured by the holy origins of her Child, St. Joseph stepped forward in faith and accepted the role of foster-father to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
The second sorrow of St. Joseph was the poverty of Jesus’ birth.
And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Entrusted by God with the divine mission of keeping the vulnerable personhood of the Messiah safe, St. Joseph must have felt like a failure when he was unable to find proper lodging for his laboring wife. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, the town was bursting with so many people who had arrived for the census that the only available space for them was one of abject poverty and humility.
But this sorrow was soon diffused when he was given the grace to look upon the face of the Savior, newly arrived on this earth. We can only imagine St. Joseph’s joy at the birth of Christ, the great blessing of holding Jesus in his arms, of stroking his soft infant cheek.
Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The third sorrow of St. Joseph was the circumcision of his precious foster Son. This was the first time Jesus shed His precious Blood, and the empathetic pain of St. Joseph wounded him deeply. Perhaps he didn’t fully understand the implications of this first Divine Bloodshed, but the pain he felt at the agony of his foster Son would foretell the greater agony his blessed wife would endure at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
This sorrow was mingled with the joy at hearing the Holy Name first proclaimed in the Temple. Through the name of Jesus, God has promised great graces and answers to prayer, and the official naming must have filled St. Joseph’s soul with a tremendous joy. Again, he may not have realized all the implications of the Holy Name, but he certainly would feel it, deep within his soul.
The fourth sorrow of St. Joseph was Simeon’s prophecy in the Temple. Joseph must have been deeply wounded upon hearing the elderly man tell Mary that “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Lk. 2:35). Surely St. Joseph must have wanted to wrap Mary and the Blessed Child in his protective arms and sweep them away from all future harm. But of course, that wasn’t in God’s divine plan.
Even so, in his tremendous faith St. Joseph knew all would be well. Simeon had also revealed words of Messianic deliverance: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Lk. 2:30-31).
The fifth sorrow St. Joseph had to endure was the threat to Jesus’ life and the necessary flight into Egypt. As protector of the Holy Family, St. Joseph must have been terrified yet determined when he received the angelic command to leave everything and flee to a foreign country. God had led the Israelites out of Egypt once, yet now God was asking Joseph to return there, with his vulnerable family?
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt.
As he led his uncomplaining wife and vulnerable baby Son to a foreign land, perhaps St. Joseph consoled himself with the story of the first Joseph, his namesake. Sold as a slave by his own brothers, exiled to Egypt, the ancient Joseph ended up saving his entire family through the grace of God’s will. Surely it brought joy to St. Joseph’s soul to recall Isaiah 19:1, “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence.”
He—Joseph the just, Joseph the prudent, Joseph the valiant—was the one chosen to bring the presence of God to Egypt. The Messiah would overthrow the idols of not merely that land, but eventually of all the world.
The return from Egypt was St. Joseph’s sixth sorrow, a sorrow that may seem at odds with the fifth. Why would returning home be a trial, since Egypt was a foreign land, and the return home meant the threat of Herod had passed?
The reason was simple: although Herod was dead, his son Archelaus—who was just as jealous and dangerous as his father—was now in power. So what was Joseph to do?
In his customary silence, St. Joseph prayed. And through prayer, he received.
He was to return to Israel, but not to Bethlehem. Instead, he was to go to Galilee. To Nazareth.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Rise, take the child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled.
(Matt. 2: 19-23)
God then rewarded his faithfulness with a quiet life in Nazareth, where he was given the grace of providing for his blessed wife and raising his divine foster Son. “And the Child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk. 2:40).
In Nazareth, St. Joseph devoted his time and love to his family. The seventh sorrow St. Joseph had to endure didn’t occur for many years after the joyous return home. When Jesus was 12, after a trip to Jerusalem, it was suddenly discovered that He was missing from the caravan that was traveling back home to Nazareth.
The loss of a child is a parent’s greatest terror. It was made all the more painful when looking into the eyes of his blessed wife, when seeing her anguish, when feeling as if he’d failed his family.
The boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it … they went a day’s journey, and they sought Him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him.
The joy at finding Jesus in the Temple, teaching the Elders and displaying a wisdom well beyond His years, was immense. To see the relief and glow of love in Mary’s eyes, to have the Real Presence wash over him in tremendous waves of redemption and peace, must have been overwhelming in its depths of blessing.
The scene from Luke 2:46 is the last we hear of St. Joseph. He was spared the greater sorrow of watching his beloved foster Son be tortured and crucified on a Roman tree. That particular suffering was reserved for the Blessed Mother.
Mary’s Seven Sorrows act in spousal relation to Joseph’s sorrows, bringing the entire truth of redemptive suffering—and ultimate joy—into full bloom.
By meditating on St. Joseph’s Seven Sorrows, we’re given the grace to allow him to walk with us through the Gospels, each step bringing us closer to his divine foster Son. That, after all, is the entire life’s mission of such a devoted and trustworthy father.