Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a
A theologian once said that “great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to our eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become.”1 When I read that, I wondered if he was thinking of St. Joseph. It fits him so beautifully.
Joseph was certainly not a man accustomed to great occasions. The ordinary ones were enough: Learn a trade, get married, bring up a family. By the time we meet him in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph had already checked two of those boxes. It was the third that brought about the crisis.
We know the basic story well: Learning that Mary is pregnant and unwilling to expose her to shame, Joseph intends to divorce her quietly. What we may not know are a couple of details. First, in that time and culture, “expose her to shame” meant the legal right to “make a show” or public mockery of her. That Joseph would not do this speaks of his love for Mary and sensitivity toward her. This brings us to the second point: his intention to divorce her quietly. Where we read “intention,” Matthew’s original word implies a decision made in angst, in the heat of a deep and inner passion. It might even go so far as to mean that Joseph was tempted to feelings of anger, shame, or indignation.
Who can blame him? How would we feel? Joseph had plans for his life and had worked, maybe even suffered, to achieve them. Now, on the verge of actually realizing them, he found his plans shattered to pieces. Even more, Joseph loved Mary; he knew that divorce meant disgrace for her and the child, not to mention very dim prospects for their future. This was the heart of the crisis. He had to make a decision, to do something, but what could he do? Mary was pregnant, he was not the father, and the law was clear. His decision for a quiet divorce was the best he could think of. Even if it meant pain or distress for the woman he loved so much, the law came from God, who Joseph loved above all.
This I think is the key. Remember the theologian’s words: “Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak.” Joseph came to this crisis with a strong moral center; born into the faith of his fathers, he was raised in it, steeped in it, and guided by it. He wasn’t going to abandon it now or ever. No matter the cost to his own or to anyone’s honor, Joseph would honor his heavenly Father first.
In its section on the 4th commandment, the Catechism lists two qualities of a respectful child: docility and obedience. As they apply to our role as children of God, docility is our readiness to follow God’s will rather than our own, and obedience is our willingness to do whatever God asks of us.
Joseph had both of these gifts in abundance, and in time God would ask him to use them to their fullest measure. For now, though, what He asked was more than enough: First, that Joseph set aside his plan of being husband of Mary of Nazareth and instead be the husband of Mary, the Mother of God; second, that he set aside any plan he might have of raising his own children and instead raise the Son of God as his own.
This is a lot to ask, but as we know, God is never outdone in generosity. In return for all Joseph was willing to do, God bestowed many honors on him: Joseph, called ‘son of David’ by God himself, would see the Son of God; Joseph, whose family line had held the God’s promise in their hearts for so long was now chosen to hold His fulfillment in his arms; and he, Joseph, was now the only one ever asked to give that Promise a name: Jesus, or “God Saves.” Ultimately, Joseph would be honored as the greatest saint of all time next to Mary, for as Blessed William Chaminade has reminded us, “To give life to someone is the greatest of all gifts. To save a life is the next. Who gave life to Jesus? It was Mary. Who saved his life? It was Joseph.”
Let us pray that we become like St. Joseph; that every day, in the silence he modeled so well, we too grow stronger in our love for God, our faith in him, and our willingness to do whatever He asks. Then, like St. Joseph, when our own crises come, as they always do, we too can show God exactly what Joseph showed Him: The person He has called us from all eternity to be.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
1 The 19th-century Anglican bishop and theologian, Brooke Foss Westcott.