Prottetore della mia agonia, tu m’assisti morte mia, con Gesu e con Maria. (Protector in my agony, you assist me in my death, with Jesus and Mary.) This little rhyme is sung in Southern Italy in heart felt devotion to St. Joseph. It expresses the fact that Joseph died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, something we all hope to do. Yet this is only one aspect of the marvelous example and place of St. Joseph in the life of the Church.
This year we are celebrating a year of St. Joseph in the Catholic Church and it is altogether fitting and proper that one should dwell at length on the many faceted character of the mission of Joseph. St. Joseph is a model to many vocations in the Church. He is the patron of workers because he worked with his hands. At the same time, he is the patron of contemplatives because of his constant spiritual presence with Jesus. He is the patron of fathers, but also of a happy death. He is the patron of marriage and yet also was a virgin.
The age of St. Joseph is an issue. Christian iconography for many centuries has been accustomed to portray Joseph as an old man to insure both virgin birth and divine personhood of Christ. This is against an ancient heresy that Joseph was the natural father of Christ. It is also founded on Scriptural texts which cite the fact that Jesus had brother and sister. (Mark 6:3) and (Mt. 13: 55-56) Yet the Jews were accustomed to give these terms to extended members of the family as is clear from the Old Testament. Joseph was portrayed as an old man to put him past childbearing age. Joseph and Mary had a real marriage but one which was not consummated. This is to prove the truth of the Incarnation and encourage belief that he was connected to a true marriage and raised in a real family just like any other human child.
Understanding Jewish wedding customs of the time is essential to unwrapping this mystery. The marriage of Mary and Joseph obeyed the societal norms of the time. Jewish wedding customs separated the betrothed from the coming together until the actual wedding ceremony. The betrothal was more than that. Vows were exchanged but cohabitation did not begin. The husband built a home for the wife. The wife remained with her family, and then with the home prepared, the husband escorted the wife from her home and they cohabited. This was the actual marriage. It was during this time that Mary went to be a midwife for Elizabeth having learned from the angel that her cousin was pregnant after the normal age. It was during this time that Joseph came to know of the mystery. Husband and wife often went together, but not as to living at home or having sexual relations. Joseph was troubled at learning of this mystery. But the source of his anxiety has often been misinterpreted as doubting Mary’s virginity.
One answer to this mystery, and supported in some ways by the present translation of the Bible used at Mass is that Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly. Feminists have supported this idea sometimes invoking Mary as an unwed mother. First as to his age, as I said, Joseph is often portrayed as 80 years old because of the anxiety to safeguard the mystery of Mary and Jesus. In Christ’s time, however, Jewish men often married between 18 and 30. Joseph in later art became a young and virile man. He could not have protected Jesus and Mary if he were not. Furthermore, how could someone divorce someone quietly in a place as small as Nazareth? This is not possible. The anxiety he felt must not have been about the virginity of Mary but about his own participation in this mystery. He had no questions or doubts about Mary’s faithfulness, and was certain that the child Mary had conceived was not conceived by man.
Joseph’s anxiety concerned his own participation as a limited creature in such a stupendous mystery — what was his place? One can discern others who reacted similarly from a number of incidents in Scripture. For example, Peter on experiencing the miraculous catch of fish is greatly moved by the mysterious event and expresses his reservations about his own participation in such a miracle by saying: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8) When Mary, as the new Ark of the Covenant, came to visit her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth is like the Old Testament figure who did not take the Ark into Jerusalem for fear of its power and left it on the threshing floor outside the city: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43) Each did not understand the source of the mystery but knew it was wonderful and needed to be convinced that they would not be consumed by it. Ancient meditations on Moses and the Burning Bush use icons with Mary and Jesus, and Moses so dazzled by the divine presence that he wanted to remove his shoes and worship lest he be burned in the fire.
The reaction of St. Joseph is the same. At the time he did not know the source, but knew it was wonderful and wondered what his place could be in it. He asked himself “whoam I to be chosen to associate myself with such a miracle.” A new translation of this important passage in the work of Dr. John Saward in his book, Redeemer in the Womb (p. 38) shows clearly that Joseph’s reaction was not an angry response to the possible violation of Mary’s virginity nor as a compassionate response towards her to spare her the Mosaic law against adultery. In no way is she an unwed mother. The betrothal was equivalent to the marriage contract. Mary did not violate her marriage vows. Rather, Joseph’s reaction concerned himself. Matthew’s account of Jesus as Messiah is as follows.
“When his Mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child by the power of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being an upright man and not wanting to reveal her mystery, resolved to withdraw from her quietly.” (Mt. 1:18-19)
It is at this point that Joseph receives the third annunciation in Holy Scripture. The first was the birth of John the Baptist; the second as the conception of Christ. The third now concerns the role that Joseph will play in the mystery, Guardian of the Redeemer and the Virginity of Our Lady. “But when he had formed this intention, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for her child has indeed been conceived by the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:20-25) Notice that the role of the father of the family was to name the child and so Joseph is the first person to pronounce the Holy Name of Jesus. Joseph is thus told in his own annunciation that his task is to be the silent guardian and protector of the mystery. Since the truth of Mary’s virginal conception is first silently revealed by the angel, he is the first silent witness to the mystery.
In obedience to the angel Joseph found in the spirit the source of his love. He was a faithful husband to Mary and through her, a guardian of the Word. He thus presents us with a marvelous example of evangelization. The marriage of Mary and Joseph is a true marriage. They did not reject consummation of their marriage but each gave themselves in faith up to the providence of God. Each realized that they were to remain virginal. In fact, there is a Christian tradition that each took a vow of virginity. But the condition was that should God ever reveal to them that they should consummate their marriage, they were willing to obey in love.
Joseph’s marriage to Mary is the juridical basis for his fatherhood. They each gave themselves to each other in freedom according to what the providence of God had prepared for them. Thus, they passed their days in the quiet joy of infused contemplation. Mary had after all married the Trinity in the Annunciation and Joseph had accepted his devotion to Mary and Jesus in his own obedience. One can see this obedience lived in the silence of St. Joseph. One preacher compares this to the sanctuary lamp burning in silent witness to the presence of Christ in the tabernacle.
This silent witness is replete in Scripture where Joseph does all his fatherly tasks including the flight into Egypt simply at the word of divine providence from the angel. It would seem that Joseph played midwife to Our Lord. Here is the justification of St. Joseph in faith. The faith of Mary meets the faith of Joseph and they share their pilgrimage together with their Son. Of course, Joseph’s pilgrimage on earth ends first. He does not directly witness Calvary or Pentecost. But he dies happy in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
All the spiritual authors are clear that authentic growth in prayer is not a matter of some spectacular experience. True, the virgin birth is an extraordinary miracle, and a very quiet one as very few knew of it at the time. Authentic spirituality is rather an exercise in growing in humility and detachment. Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. Detachment is surrendering all that the self holds dear as a substitute for God, and to serve the Lord more faithfully. Once one has formed these virtues by listening to God and acting, as Joseph did in his annunciation, this cannot help but affect human relationships as well. The Son of Mary is Joseph’s son by reason of the marriage bond. But this is not a fatherhood of the flesh but of the spirit and the Word. Union of hearts and spiritual union always come first and that is certainly true with the Holy Family. Joseph serves a vital proof that the spiritual presence of the father is necessary in the domestic church for it to truly be a community of love and spiritual growth. That spiritual presence is exemplified in his humility and detachment.
Joseph demonstrates the authority of a father in his service of Christ, his legal authority by his gift of self and his family love by his complete offering of himself. As guardian and father, Joseph’s humility and detachment are a part of his personal experience with Jesus in many of the important actions of Jesus’s. In the census they journey to his ancestral town. In the birth the true light comes forth from Mary’s womb to enlighten the world. In the circumcision, the first shedding of the blood of the Redeemer takes place and He is made a member of Israel. He will fulfill the law. In the giving of the Holy Name, the Redeemer is proclaimed to the world. In the presentation in the Temple, the Lord of the Temple comes to meet the Temple as a child and the longing of human hearts for redemption is finally fulfilled in Simeon and Anna. The fateful sword of the passion is promised to Mary. In the flight into Egypt, Our Lord is taken to the ancient land of Egypt, a land tainted with idolatry from which Moses came to give the law and redeem the people from slavery. In the finding in the Temple, Joseph and Mary are gently teased by Our Lord. They know who he is, why look for him for three days? Where else would wisdom itself be but in the Temple engaging the doctors of the law? In the support and education of Christ, he is apprenticed to Joseph to work also with his hands at honest trade. Christ experiences the virtue of industriousness.
St. Joseph witnessed and was personally present for all these events. Justly is he called the patron of the universal Church. Among other titles in the litany of St. Joseph he is invoked as the “terror of demons.” One reason for this is that the devil tempts us with all kinds of things to show our power in domination over others. In the humility and detachment of St. Joseph we see this for just what it is, false stumpery. Only God can give us freedom, truth and spiritual treasure. In our modern godless world characterized by the lack of any spirituality the humble and detached but strong manly Joseph is a fit patron for constant concern for the dear neighbor whoever that may be. We should therefore say daily: Ite ad Joseph. (Go to Joseph.)
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