Gina Christian

Many years ago, the rock band Pearl Jam released a song in which lead vocalist Eddie Vedder pleaded, “Oh, please let me sleep, it’s Christmas time.” Over jangling guitar strings, he lamented cold winds, fatigue and a heaven that knew nothing of him; he longed to close his eyes and reexperience “how magic it seemed” to celebrate the holiday as a child.

Both hardship and hectic schedules can certainly drive us to dreamland at this time of year. The contrast between what we think Christmas “should” be and how we’re actually able to celebrate it can be wrenching, especially for those left unemployed, homeless and hungry by a resurgent pandemic. After months marred by COVID, loss, anxiety and weariness have dulled our spirits, which ache for rest, however brief.

I believe St. Joseph could well sympathize with our search for slumber. He certainly knew what it was like to keep watch through the strange hours of the night: troubled by the news of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, he wrestled with the decision to “divorce her quietly” until he was reassured by an angel in a dream (Mt 2:18-25).

En route from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of some 90 miles, Joseph’s vigil intensified. Although he and Mary may have traveled in a caravan for safety, guiding an expectant mother through harsh weather and rough terrain, while remaining alert for wild animals and thieves, didn’t allow Joseph much time to relax. Nor, for that matter, did scrambling to find lodgings once the little family got to the city of David.

Even after the newborn Savior had safely arrived, a good night’s sleep was likely still elusive for the humble carpenter. Shepherds and Magi showed up on the doorstep, asking to verify and adore the child. Simeon uttered perplexing prophecies over the infant at the presentation in the Temple. King Herod launched a brutal massacre, and again an angel roused Joseph in a dream, directing him to “rise, take the child and his mother, (and) flee to Egypt” (Mt 2:13). Another rushed journey, this time by night and to a foreign land, with a baby and a wife, and no certain means of providing for either.

How many hours Joseph must have spent watching Jesus and Mary as they slept, and praying for God’s guidance, wisdom and strength to fulfill an impossible task: being the earthly father to your own Lord. 

Perhaps in those middle-of-the-night moments, Joseph learned the real secret of rest. Fully awake to the Lord, he could entrust himself and his family to the One who “gives to his beloved in sleep” (Ps 127:2). The angel beckoning Joseph to bring his family back to Israel found a man refreshed, ready to rise and quick to heed instructions to evade Herod’s successor, Archelaus, by heading to Galilee (Mt 2:19-23).

The silent years of the Holy Family’s life in Nazareth, broken in Scripture only by Jesus’ three-day sojourn in the Temple (Lk 2:41-52), did not lull Joseph into torpor. Although like Mary he was probably startled by a 12-year-old Jesus dialoguing with rabbis and declaring “I must be in my Father’s house” (Lk 2:49), Joseph remained attuned to each new revelation of the Lord in his life.

And when, as long tradition (and inference from Scripture) recommends, Joseph died before he saw Jesus embark on his public ministry, he closed his eyes in hopeful expectation, becoming “the patron of a happy death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014).

In this coming “Year of St. Joseph,” announced just days ago by Pope Francis, may we learn from this wise protector how to greet the coming Lord with eyes wide open, and hearts completely at peace.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.