"…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; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.'""…ecce angelus Domini apparuit in somnis ei, dicens: 'Joseph, fili David, noli timere accipere Mariam conjugem tuam: quod enim in ea natum est, de Spiritu Sancto est. Pariet autem filium: et vocabis nomen ejus Jesum: ipse enim salvum faciet populum suum a peccatis eorum.'" (Mth 1:20ff.)
Today is the feast of the Nativity. While reading the Scriptures for the day, I was struck by two things. First, St. Joseph may rightly be considered the first "evangelized", or at least certainly the second historical, disciple of the Incarnate God. Second, the angel Gabriel's words to him are not only spoken to him, but to all disciples of the Messiah. These points are so closely united in praxis that I might even call them aspects of the same truth.
The first point indicates how we ought to respond to the "icon" of Christ born(e) in Mary. In so far as Mary is the icon of the Church, and the Church the celestial icon of Mary, she is not as properly regarded as a "disciple" of the Lord, as a uniquely favored handmaiden of the Lord, the Kecharitomene, the all-graced Seat of Wisdom, the untouchable and undefiled Ark of the New Covenant. If anything, we should call her a "first-order" disciple, and one whose relationship with the Lord is integrated into any robust "second-order" discipleship. Thus, it is actually in St. Joseph's response to this "ecclesial icon"––the Anointed One in the Blessed Virgin––that we find our own holy response as second-order disciples. Virtually the entire 'economic' life of a Christian is compressed into St. Joseph's vocation: courage, hope, action, and passing the Good News on to others. "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save!" Indeed: all Christians shall call the Savior Jesus.
Thus, taking St. Joseph as a model for discipleship and virile devotion to the will of God, we are entitled to a share of the knowledge and courage he gained from the angel's message. We are, with the ears of St. Joseph, told not to fear; we are told to dare taking Mary––the womb in which the Son of God assumed flesh and blood, just as the altar of any Catholic church is a womb 'on' which the Son of God assumes the appearance of bread and wine to offer His flesh. We are, in his wake, told to rise and be united with the holy Virgin, not declining to call her our own Bride as the Bride of God. This is how we must behold the Church: as betrothed Virgin, an object of holy devotion, and not as an object of fear or as an obstacle to loving God.
This "second-order primacy" is, I suspect, intimately connected with why the Church reveres St. Joseph as the patron saint of the whole Church. I quote the following from Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation, Redemptoris Custos:
At a difficult time in the Church's history, Pope Pius IX, wishing to place her under the powerful patronage of the holy patriarch Joseph, declared him "Patron of the Catholic Church."(42 [Cf. Sacror. Rituum Congreg., Decr. Quemadmodum Deus (December 8, 1870)]) For Pius IX this was no idle gesture, since by virtue of the sublime dignity which God has granted to his most faithful servant Joseph, "the Church, after the Blessed Virgin, his spouse, has always held him in great honor and showered him with praise, having recourse to him amid tribulations."(43 [Ibid.]) [emphasis added]
What are the reasons for such great confidence? Leo XIII explained it in this way:"The reasons why St. Joseph must be considered the special patron of the Church, and the Church in turn draws exceeding hope from his care and patronage, chiefly arise from his having been the husband of Mary and the presumed father of Jesus..., Joseph was in his day the lawful and natural guardian, head and defender of the Holy Family.... It is thus fitting and most worthy of Joseph's dignity that, in the same way that he once kept unceasing holy watch over the family of Nazareth, so now does he protect and defend with his heavenly patronage the Church of Christ."(44 [Encyclical Epistle Quamquam pluries (August 15, 1889)])
I find the words of Pope Pius IX, in Quemadmodum Deus, especially apt:
Him whom countless kings and prophets had desired to see, Joseph not only saw but conversed with, and embraced in paternal affection, and kissed. He most diligently reared Him whom the faithful were to receive as the bread that came down from heaven whereby they might obtain eternal life. (emphasis added)
Lest we forget, the reason we should have courage is for right action. Surely the protector of the Savior and, in time, the co-patron of His Church, did not lack the virtue of courage. Hence:
"When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife….""Exsurgens autem Joseph a somno, fecit sicut præcepit ei angelus Domini, et accepit conjugem suam." (Mth 1:24)
Arise! Noli timere!