Circular Letter: Advent 2001

Saint Joseph: Man of Silence and Virtue

The origin of the Christ was in this wise.When Mary his mother had been betrothed to Joseph.  (Mt 1,18).

Who is Saint Joseph? Who is this singular man chosen as the spouse of the Most Holy Virgin, as head of the Holy Family? This is the question to which we propose to give an initial response by reflecting upon the trial of Joseph which Divine Providence imposed upon him at the dawn of the New Covenant.

Why did God even impose such a trial? Fr. Daniel-Joseph Lallement explains: “The tasks given by God are not fittingly received except in the total renunciation of oneself, of one’s own thoughts, in complete humility, in a pure obedience out of love. These dispositions need to be all the deeper, in the measure that the tasks to be assigned are exalted. After the dispositions of the Son of God who upon ‘entering into this world’, immediately declared with the whole of his humanity, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God!’ (Heb 10,5-7); after the dispositions of the Blessed Virgin Mary responding to the Messenger of the Annunciation, ‘Behold, the Handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word!’ (Lk 1,38), no dispositions should have been more saintly than those which God wished to find in Joseph in order to entrust unto him the care for the mystery of the Incarnation” (Vie et Sainteté du Juste Joseph, Téqui, Paris. p. 65).

The Trial of Saint Joseph

The Gospels identify Joseph as a descendent of David, as the spouse of the Virgin Mary. Only after Mary had virginally conceived by the Holy Spirit, did Joseph come to know that she was with child. Saint Matthew describes his trial, saying: “Joseph Her husband, being a just man, and not willing to expose Her to the Law, thought to put Her away privately” (1,19).

Accordingly, Joseph’s trial began when he perceived that Mary, his spouse, was with child. This fact can be easily misinterpreted when viewed outside the context of Joseph’s extraordinary virtue. The Evangelist not only declares Joseph to be a just man in general, but affirms that this quality of perfect justice marked his decision: “being a just man, [he resolved] to divorce her quietly”. “By ‘a just man’”, declares Chrysostom, Matthew “means him who is virtuous in all things” (Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, in Matthew 1,19).

Failing to appreciate this sufficiently, some authors, ancient and modern, have held that Joseph thought Mary was no longer a virgin. Aside from the fact that it would have been unjust to dismiss her on the basis of a mere suspicion of infidelity, Lallement shows this thesis to be contradictory to the biblical text: for if he thought she had been unfaithful, as a just man he would have been obliged to turn her over to the Law (cf. Dt 22,23-24), or, contrarily, if he thought her an innocent victim of violence, there would have been no just cause to dismiss her (cf. Dt 22,26, ibid., p. 72).

The evidence provided by Luke concerning the relationship between Joseph and Mary, strongly indicates that Joseph’s deliberations actually ran on a much higher plane. Luke gives us to understand that Joseph knew and consented to Mary’s resolution to remain a virgin. In order to contract a valid marriage, Mary was certainly obliged to inform her spouse concerning her intent to remain consecrated to God as a virgin. That she did so is manifest in her response to the Angel Gabriel’s annunciation that she was to conceive a son: “How can this be, since I do not know man” (Lk 1,34). By speaking in the present tense – “I know not man” – she gives an absolute sense to her statement. It is not simply that she was unacquainted with a potential spouse, being already married to Joseph. Rather the statement proclaims that her permanent intention was to remain a virgin.

The fact that St. Joseph consented to enter into this virginal marriage, moreover, tells us a great deal about his own spiritual depth. Were he himself not most chaste, he would not have been able to rise above the Jewish culture, which perceived the divine blessing to consist in many children and which considered infecundity a curse from God. Through an incomparable virginal love he was able to renounce that natural conjugal love that is the foundation and nourishment of the family (cf. Redemptoris Custos = CR, 26).

Hence, it is not that Joseph doubted the integrity of the Blessed Virgin, rather it was the mystery that was unfolding before his eyes that occasioned his great trial. Jerome notes: “This may be considered a testimony to Mary, that Joseph, confident in her purity, and wondering at what had happened, covered in silence that mystery which he could not explain” (Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, in Matthäus 1,19).

What mystery is at question? Remigius explains: “He beheld her to be with child, whom he knew to be chaste; and because he had read, ‘There shall come a rod out of the stem of Jesse,’ of which he knew that Mary was come, and had also read, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive,’ he did not doubt that this prophecy should be fulfilled in her” (ibid.). Moreover, since Joseph was the first man ever to be espoused to a consecrated Virgin, it is reasonable that the thought of the prophesied Virgin birth come to his mind under the convergence of circumstances.

And why should this cause him such consternation that he should seek to divorce her? Origen responds: “But if he had no suspicion of her, how could he be a just man, and yet seek to put her away, being immaculate? He sought to put her away, because he saw in her a great sacrament, which to approach he thought himself unworthy” (ibid.). Thus, as the Gloss says, “He was just because of his faith, in that he believed that Christ should be born of a virgin; wherefore he wished to humble himself before so great a favor” (ibid.).

St. Thomas follows this exegesis, saying that Joseph, having read the prophesies of Isaias (cf. 7,14 and 11,1), and aware that Mary was from the stock of David (Jesse), was “more inclined to believe that these would be fulfilled in her, than to believe that she would commit adultery. Thus, considering himself unworthy to dwell together with such holiness, he wanted to secretly dismiss her, somewhat like Peter, who said: ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’ (Lk 5,8) (Super Matt. I. nr. 117).

Lallement synthesizes: “It was with these interior dispositions and frame of mind as the spouse promised to Mary that Joseph pondered supernaturally the problem that presented itself to him: he no longer sees any mission for himself alongside Mary, now that such a mystery, which utterly surpassed him, was being accomplished in her, nor does he believe that he has the right to divulge this mystery. Therefore, he decides to grant Mary her freedom in a discrete way: ‘her husband, being just, and not wishing to expose her, resolved to release her discreetly’” (loc. cit. p. 64-65).

The Mystery of the Emmanuel

Thus, Joseph’s decision was motivated by humility and by a concern to guard the integrity of the divine mystery. Concerning his personal participation in the mystery of the Emmanuel child, Joseph, the just man, opted for the humble solution – “When you are invited to a wedding feast, do not take the first place, [but], take the least place” (Lk 14,8a.10a) – for he had no positive indication from God that he should be integrated in the divine plan. The prophecies spoke only of the Virgin Mother of the Emmanuel.

What a suffering this must have been for Joseph to have to surrender his intimate association with Mary, whom he cherished above all else in this world! Still, he could not presume a mission for himself alongside the Virgin Mother of the Emmanuel Child. “In his readiness to renounce himself, because the newness of the situation seemed to prohibit the continuance of their marriage bond, Joseph did not doubt Mary, rather he manifested that he could in no way attribute to himself any such dignity by which he might henceforth believe her his own. He manifested a total renunciation of himself, he who had been so deeply united to the messianic desire of his spouse. And now he finds himself simultaneously in the immense joy of beholding the divine promise being accomplished in her whom he loves, and in the great sorrow of the sacrifice which he offers of his own free will to separate himself from her, whom he had come to cherish even more! It was at this juncture that the Angel confirmed him in his union with Mary; and it was in a pure obedience of love that he took her immediately unto himself” (Lallement, ibid., p. 67).

Can this position be demonstrated? Yes, a careful reading of St. Matthew effectively eliminates all other options. The key is given by the Angel. After Joseph had decided to divorce Mary discretely, an angel sent by God instructs him: Fear not, Joseph, son of David, to take Mary, your wife, to yourself, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins” (Mt 1,20-21). The Angel’s words specify fear as the motivating factor behind Joseph’s decision. If, in the depths of his heart, Joseph had been thinking either of infidelity or of a violation, one would not properly attribute Joseph’s decision to fear. Perhaps to anger, maybe to sadness, but not to fear.

What then was the object of his fear? The Angel tells him not to fear to take his wife into his home. Hence, his fear principally regarded his relationship to Mary and the Child. Thus, Chrysostom suggests: “The Angel says, ‘Fear not to take unto thee’, that is, to keep her at home; for in thought she was already dismissed.” And Remigius: “‘Fear not to take her,’ that is, in marriage union and continual converse” (Catena Aurea, in Matthäus 1,21).

The Angel does not so much reveal as assure Joseph about that which had long since been prophesied:“All this has taken place, so that the words of the Lord spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled: a virgin shall conceive and bring to the light a son and shall call him Emmanuel” (Is 7,14; Mt 1,23). He does this in order to instruct him about his own mission.

The appellation, ‘son of David’ directs Joseph’s thoughts towards the realization of the messianic plan, but it is not immediately his function with respect to the Messiah about which he is enlightened; God lets him know, first of all, that his relationship with Mary should remain stable: she should be his wife. The fact that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit does not destroy this union, but confirms it. It is in this way that the Angel of God indicates to Joseph, what his function should be with respect to the Infant to be born: ‘You shall give Him the name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins’ (Mt 1,21). To give the Child its name is the sign – particularly at that time – of paternal authority” (Lallement, loc. cit., p. 67-68; cf. Lk 1,62-64).

Thus, “Joseph should not suppose that he was no longer needed in this wedlock, seeing the conception had taken place without his intervention. Therefore, the Angel declares to him that, though there had been no need of him in the conception, yet there was need of his guardianship; for the Virgin should bear a Son, and then he would be necessary both to the Mother and her Son; to the Mother to screen her from disgrace, to the Son to bring Him up and to circumcise Him. The circumcision is meant when he says, ‘And thou shalt call His name Jesus’; for it was usual to give the name in circumcision” (Catena Aurea, in Gloss to Mt 1,19).

To resume, Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary was based on his conclusion that she was the Virgin Mother of the Messiah, and he feared that his presence might impede the Divine plan. At this juncture the Angel intervened, declaring his mission as the spouse of Mary and head of the Holy Family. This is substantially the solution that Pope John Paul II proposes affirming that Joseph had “decided to draw back so as not to interfere in the plan of God which was coming to pass in Mary. [Still he] obeyed the explicit command of the angel and took Mary into his home, while respecting the fact that she belonged exclusively to God” (RC, 20).

Even though Joseph’s thoughts had led him to the mystery of the Virgin with Child, he could not rest peacefully in this reflection, without clarification concerning his own future relationship to the Blessed Virgin. This was the object of his trial, which he could only resolve by humbly withdrawing from Mary. It was for the sake of this humility that God allowed his painful trial before confirming him in his holy mission.

Joseph’s Humility and Holiness

The confirmation of Joseph’s mission only served to increase his humility. Bl. Elisabeth Canori well observed: nothing causes greater humility than to be greatly graced by God without any claim to merit. So greatly are these souls annihilated in their own eyes that they gladly subject themselves in holy obedience to their superiors and spiritual directors, even as St. Joseph immediately subjected himself to the command of the angel to accept Mary into his home, even though he had just before decided to do the contrary.

Once manifested through the Angel, Joseph readily surrendered in silence to the will of God, to which nothing needs to be added except loving compliance. How great must have been his interior joy and exaltation of heart over the condescension and goodness of God in choosing him to be so intimately associated with this work of salvation: My soul magnifies the Lord ,… who has looked on the lowliness of His servant!

There is another aspect to Joseph’s fear and humility, in which he compares favorably to other great figures in the history of salvation. Souls singled out by the grace of God often suffer great trepidation and doubt in the face of the divine plan which somehow defies natural comprehension. This caused Moses, for example, no little suffering. He did not support this tension in his trial in the desert, when God sent him to draw water from the rock. On that occasion, he vacillated under the weight of a certain incredulity and struck the rock twice, thus depriving God of glory by his lack of confidence (cf. Num 20,9-12). In such moments the danger is near that the soul will fix its gaze upon itself and the paradox at hand, instead of surrendering itself trustingly to God, in whose light and strength alone all things become manifest and are accomplished.

Similarly, the priest Zacharias was unable to support the angelic prophecy that he was called to be the father of John the Baptist, who was to go before the Lord to prepare His way. He too, considering his own weakness and misery, his advanced age and the sterility of his wife and, so, failing to look to God, for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1,37), failed to give credence to the words of St. Gabriel.

St. Joseph too suffered great tribulation in the obscurity of his trial, only with this essential distinction: Joseph suffered precisely because he did believe in the supernatural mystery of the Virgin Birth, but could not discern his own mission without the clarifying light from God. For this reason his initial response had to be first one of holy and discreet humility. In the darkness of trial, prudence suggested that he withdraw from Mary; nevertheless his humble docility disposed him to immediately embrace in faith the injunction of the Angel: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to receive Mary as your spouse, for that which was conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit!” (Mt 1,20). And so, as St. Matthew notes: “Arising from sleep, Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and he took his spouse into his home” (1,24). How great must his joy have been, to have been found worthy by God to be so intimately united with Christ and His mother in love and service.

Thus we behold in St. Joseph the man, chosen by God, who responded most generously to the great mystery of Divine Love that was revealed and entrusted to him in the persons of Mary and Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God. He dedicated his entire life to the untiring service of the plan of salvation. Pope John Paul II underscores the moral greatness of St. Joseph in these words: “The total sacrifice, whereby Joseph surrendered his whole existence to the demands of the Messiah’s coming into his home, becomes understandable only in the light of his profound interior life. It was from this interior life that ‘very singular commands and consolations came, bringing him also the logic and strength that belong to simple and clear souls, and giving him the power of making great decisions – such as the decision to put his liberty immediately at the disposition of the divine designs, to make over to them also his legitimate human calling, his conjugal happiness, to accept the conditions, the responsibility and the burden of a family, but, through an incomparable virginal love, to renounce that natural conjugal love that is the foundation and nourishment of the family’”(RC, 26, citing: P. Paul VI, Insegnamenti, VII [1969], p. 1267).

“Joseph was in daily contact with the mystery ‘hidden from ages past,’ and which ‘dwelt’ under his roof” (RC, 25). Such proximity to the Blessed Mother and the Incarnate Word necessarily had a sanctifying effect upon St. Joseph. The Holy Father explains: “The communion of life between Joseph and Jesus leads us to consider once again the mystery of the Incarnation, precisely in reference to the humanity of Jesus as the efficacious instrument of his divinity for the purpose of sanctifying man: ‘By virtue of his divinity, Christ’s human actions were salvific for us, causing grace within us, either by merit or by a certain efficacy’(cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theol. III, q. 8, a. 1, ad 1). Among those actions, the gospel writers highlight those which have to do with the Paschal Mystery, but they also underscore the importance of physical contact with Jesus… The apostolic witness did not neglect the story of Jesus’ birth, his circumcision, his presentation in the Temple, his flight into Egypt and his hidden life in Nazareth. It recognized the ‘mystery’ of grace present in each of these saving ‘acts,’ inasmuch as they all share the same source of love: the divinity of Christ. If through Christ’s humanity this love shone on all mankind, the first beneficiaries were undoubtedly those whom the divine will had most intimately associated with itself: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and Joseph, his presumed father” (RC, 27).

For 30 years together with Mary, Joseph was the only one to know and enjoy the company and wisdom of Jesus Christ as God and man. As such, both as the Spouse of Mary and as head of the Holy Family he is a worthy and powerful protector of the Church, indeed, of all the baptized in these hard times. “The Church also calls upon Joseph as her protector,” Pope Paul VI adds, “because of a profound and ever present desire to reinvigorate her ancient life with true evangelical virtues, such as shine forth in St. Joseph” (Discourse [March 19, 1969]: Insegnamenti, VII [1969] p. 1269, in RC, 30).

Pope John Paul II draws a fitting conclusion: “Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, [the Church] asks God to grant that she may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate World; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession” (RC,31).

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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