When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
— Matthew 1:24
In the Gospel passage for today’s Mass (March 20th),1 The Ordinary Form provides two options: Mt 1:16, 18-21, 24a and Lk 2:41-51a; I refer to the first option. Extraordinary Form: Mt 1:18-21. Saint Joseph’s virtues appear in subtle but distinct relief: his humility, his justice or righteousness, his unwavering faith, his reverential fear of the Lord, his docility, his obedience, his courage, his chastity, and his promptness in the service of God. All these virtues gleam forth from the man without his uttering a single word. His interior silence was the nursery of prayer—the occasion of an intimate and vibrant relationship with the God of Israel.
We call Saint Joseph, in hymns and in devotional prayers, the “comrade of angels” not only because of his angelic purity but also because, according to Saint Matthew’s account, angels were Saint Joseph’s counselors and guides. To Joseph the angel spoke in a dream the commands of God, and guided his steps in safeguarding the earthly life of the Lord Jesus Christ and of His most holy Mother. It is worth noting an important distinction in dignity between the immaculate Virgin and her humble spouse. Whereas the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady and solicited her affirmative reply to God’s plan of salvation, an unnamed angel appears to Saint Joseph, but only in a dream. This arrangement is significant: the Virgin Mary is requested to make a reply, namely to pronounce her fiat, thereby allowing the Incarnation to take place within her. Saint Joseph is neither consulted nor asked to fulfill a role. He is given a command and he fulfills it.
The silence of Saint Joseph allowed God to speak to His saint and to be heard over the noise of the carpenter’s shop, over the haggling of customers and suppliers in Nazareth, where he plied his artisanship, over the multitude of taxpayers thronging into Bethlehem at the time of the census of Caesar Augustus, and over the foreign tongues that he would hear in Egypt. Joseph, the just man, distinguished himself by his intimate rapport with the Lord whom he served, for he obeyed the Father’s command to take to his home the Blessed Virgin, the living tabernacle of the new and eternal covenant. Saint Joseph provided food, shelter, and a loving home for God the Son, and he protected the Mother of God from idle speculation and malicious gossip. The Fathers of the Church, beginning with Saint Irenæus of Lyons, maintain that Saint Joseph played an important role in keeping from the devil the secret of Christ’s virginal conception and virginal birth. The devil, although he knows more than we do, is not omniscient. God alone knows all things, and He kept from the devil the particulars of our Savior’s conception and birth, lest the evil one try somehow to undermine God’s wise and loving plan for the redemption of our fallen human race.
Among the early doctors of the Church, Saint Jerome is the staunchest defender of Saint Joseph’s honor and integrity. For he clarifies that Joseph feared to take Mary home as his wife not out of any fear that Our Lady had in any way sinned; rather, Saint Joseph, the son of David, shared his royal ancestor’s fear of coming into overly close contact with the Tabernacle of the Lord. “Who am I,” asked King David, “that the Ark of the Lord should come to me?” (2 Sam. 6:9).
Joseph, believing fully that Mary had conceived by the power of God’s Spirit, feared to bring her into his home lest he be overcome by the majesty of the divine mystery and overwhelmed by the presence of such sanctity. This is why he chose to honor Mary’s secret, not to expose her mystery. He decision not to bring her into his home was born not out of envy but out of reverential fear. In this view, Saint Jerome is supported by the Mellifluous Doctor, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
God, however, sent His angel to Joseph to command him not to fear, as one in terror, but rather to offer his home to the disposal of the Blessed Virgin and her Child. Joseph had no need to fear, for he resembled not his direct ancestor, the adulterous King David of Psalm 50(51), but rather the patriarch Joseph of Genesis 39, who retained his virtue and integrity against the lascivious advances of Potiphar’s wife.
Scripture demonstrates how aptly Saint Joseph, last of the patriarchs, was named after the early patriarch Joseph. For just as the early patriarch Joseph had stored up in Egypt grain to provide bread for the preservation of the People of Israel, so Saint Joseph, the splendor of the patriarchs (as we address him in his litany), rescued in Egypt the Bread of Life for the salvation of the people of the New Israel, the Church. To Saint Joseph the Church owes the safeguarding of the Incarnate Word, the preservation of the Bread of Life. For this very reason, Blessed Pius IX declared Saint Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church on December 8th, 1870.
Devotion to Saint Joseph had begun to grow in the Western Church by the 13th century, thanks to the preaching and writing of Saint Bernard in the 12th century and its promotion by the Franciscans, who found in the poor, humble carpenter of Nazareth a kindred spirit. Devotion to Saint Joseph, however, made great progress in the 15th century thanks to the efforts of Saint Bernardine of Siena and his contemporary Jean Gerson, a French scholar who served as the chancellor of Paris.
Devotion to Saint Joseph came to full flower by the 16th century with the renewed emphasis on the Incarnation and the Holy Family. Saint Teresa of Avila strongly encouraged prayer to Saint Joseph; in the next century, Saint Francis de Sales preached eloquently on Saint Joseph and encouraged countless numbers to have recourse to Joseph’s powerful intercession.
We can all profit by the example and intercession of Saint Joseph. He is the pattern of the spiritual life, and his powerful intercession has wrought countless graces, providential interventions, holy promptings, and even miracles. Saint Joseph continues to protect on earth the Church, Christ’s mystical body, just as once he protected Christ’s physical body from imminent danger to His life.
Saint Joseph is the ideal saint of Lent, precisely because of his great silence (prayer, contemplation), his unfailing devotion to duty and to self-denial (fasting and mortification), and his goodness to others (charity and almsgiving), which still finds expression in the granting of favors and supernatural interventions recorded by grateful souls. May we strive to imitate his virtues and call upon his aid in all our needs.
Originally published on March 19, 2015. This post has been updated.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The Ordinary Form provides two options: Mt 1:16, 18-21, 24a and Lk 2:41-51a; I refer to the first option. Extraordinary Form: Mt 1:18-21.|