Theologians in later times often referred to Joseph as “the Angelic Man.” They did this for two reasons. First of all, and obviously, because he had at least four vivid encounters with angels in his lifetime. That is four more, perhaps, than most people have. But there is another reason why he was “angelic.” He was angelic, the theologians say, because he received in abundance the particular gifts of all the pure spirits in heaven.
This argument is developed most fully in the work of Jerónimo Gracián, a sixteenth-century Carmelite friar, best known as the spiritual director of St. Teresa of Avila.36
Gracián follows the Christian interpretive tradition, which identifies in the Bible nine distinct orders (or choirs) of pure spirits in heaven. There are angels, archangels, and principalities; virtues, powers, and dominions; and thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. Each grouping has its particular way of serving God—a particular, “angelic” way. And yet, Gracián says, Joseph managed to fulfill the requirements of each and every group.
An angel, in the biblical languages, is simply a “messenger.” That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew malakh and Greek angelos. Even as they delivered messages, however, the angels commonly served also as guardians and guides (see, for example, Gn 16:7–13 and Zec 1:8–21). Like the angels, Joseph served as a messenger between heaven and the Holy Family, and then served as the family’s guide and protector.
An archangel is a ruling angel. To archangels, in the Scriptures, God assigns the tasks of greatest gravity. The only spirit identified in the Bible as an archangel is Michael, who consistently opposes the devil in direct combat (see Jude 9, Rv 12:7). In the interpretive tradition, Gabriel (Lk 1:26) and Raphael (Tb 12:15) are also identified as archangels. St. Paul reveals that an archangel will announce the resurrection of the dead at the end of time (1 Thes 4:16). Like these ruling angels, Joseph was given a task of utmost gravity; his combat required direct engagement with evil; and he bore messages to Jesus and Mary.
The principalities are God’s ordinary and immediate servants in the concerns of the visible world. Some scholars identify them with the guardian spirits of nations (see Sir 17:17). St. Paul mentions the principalities often (see Rom 8:38, Eph 3:10; Colossians 1:16); he speaks of some of them among the malicious spirits (see Eph 6:12; Col 2:15). According to the later Church Fathers, the principalities have a special concern for the leaders of nations and leaders in religion.37 After the manner of the principalities, Joseph was given authority over the household of the Holy Family—and special care for the King of Kings.