The loud silence of St. Joseph
"We can have recourse to many saints as our intercessors, but go especially to Joseph..."
- St. Teresa of Avila
Today (3/20) the Church celebrates the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the guardian of the Christ-child.
The Gospels are very clear that Joseph is not the father of the Lord Jesus. The child born of the Virgin Mary is God and has no earthly father. The body of Christ's human nature is created by what the scriptures describe as "the power of the Holy Spirit." If this explanation confounds us, we are rightly confounded. Christ is like us inasmuch as he shares with us a human nature and lives a real human life. And yet, Christ is unlike us inasmuch as he is the singular instance in which a divine nature and a human nature share communion in a divine person.
Simply expressed, Christ is God and man. It is because of Christ's willingness to accept a human nature with all its limitations that we are able to participate in his divine nature. This participation, a gift given to us by Christ, is the most profound mystery of the Faith.
The mind can apprehend this mysterious revelation, even appreciate the "why" of it, but cannot fully understand the "how" of it all.
We can imagine that Joseph himself did not fully understand the circumstances surrounding Christ's conception and birth, but he was able to love what he did not fully understand. It is in this love that both his faith and his sanctity are revealed.
The Scriptures for today's solemnity are redolent of the Messianic expectations of Israel by which is meant the passionate belief professed by the descendants of Abraham that God would raise up from one of their own people a Savior who would manifest in word and deed the power of God. The revelation of the Messiah would change Israel and the world forever.
The first scripture is a small section from the Second Book of Samuel that presents the prophet Nathan speaking to King David about his future heir. David will have a son who will accomplish something that David will not. What will the son of David do? Build the Lord God a magnificent temple.
King David's son, Solomon, would accomplish this feat and would do so with such glory that generations after its destruction, his temple is still remembered as one of the most glorious of all human artistic achievements. However, the Church does not present this scripture from Second Samuel today so that we can remember Solomon, son of David, but Jesus, the Son of David!
Jesus, the Son of David, whose ancestry is traced back to Israel's royal family through Joseph, is King David's rightful heir. Christ bears the legacy of Israel's kingship and he builds a temple. But the temple Christ builds is greater than Solomon's. How so? Because the temple of the Lord Jesus is the Body he reveals in the Incarnation. God reveals himself in the human nature of Christ in a way that is likened to how the divine presence fills the sanctuary of Solomon's temple with glory.
The second scripture for today presents an excerpt from St. Paul's magnificent letter to the Romans. The Letter to the Romans is St. Paul's "magnum opus," his crowning literary achievement. The letter reads as an extended argument that the Apostle to the Gentiles is making on behalf of his conviction that the extraordinary revelation of Christ has had an extraordinary effect on Israel. Israel has been transformed as a result of Christ's revelation, and the Letter to the Romans is describing what Israel once was, is now, and will be in the future because of the Lord Jesus.
This particular scripture from Romans references Abraham, whose great story is told in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. Abraham is the founding patriarch of God's chosen people, a people who will take their name from Abraham's grandson, who was called Jacob or Israel. St. Paul cites the promise God made to Abraham that he would have limitless descendants who would all manifest the faith Abraham to the world.
It is St. Paul's conviction that it is Christ who delivers this promise, transforming Israel so that its numbers can truly be limitless and providing the means by which the God of Abraham would be known by the whole world. How? St. Paul sees all this happening in the Church, which is Israel transformed. Christ has enabled the whole world to become, through the Church, descendants of Abraham and followers of the one, true God.
The Church gives the priest the option of choosing one of two Gospel passages for today.
One of these choices, from the Gospel of Luke, describes a curious event in which Joseph and the Virgin Mary lose the Christ child, only to find him in the temple of Jerusalem.
This particular Gospel hearkens to the theme of the reading for today from Second Samuel with its allusion to the temple. Luke is comparing and contrasting the old and new temples- one built of stones and culture in the city of Jerusalem and the other built of flesh and divinity in the Body of Christ. His message? The true meaning and purpose of the old sanctuary can only be fully appreciated in relation to the new sanctuary. The God whom we seek can only be found in the temple of Christ's Body.
The other Gospel for today is an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew. Thjs scripture makes it clear that the child born of the Virgin Mary is not the son of Joseph, or of any other man for that matter, but the Son of God. In this respect, the Gospel of Matthew is not just hinting at Christ's true identity, but he is, in the opening of his Gospel, revealing Christ's identity explicitly. Who is this Jesus? He is God, and he has come for a particular purpose: "to save his people from their sins."
The rest of the Gospel of Matthew will demonstrate how this salvation from sin actually happens, but what Matthew wants us to know from the beginning is that it is God who is acting to reveal himself in Christ. The Gospel of Matthew, indeed all four Gospels, are telling us that God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, who appeared to be the son of Joseph, but who is in fact the God of Israel himself.
I have now told you a great deal about the Lord Jesus and very little about Saint Joseph, which might strike you as odd given that tomorrow is his great solemnity.
However, my inability to say all that much about Saint Joseph follows a lead from the Scriptures, which are mostly silent in regards to details about him. After the story of Christ's birth, Saint Joseph seems to disappear from the narrative of Christ's life as it is recorded in the Gospels. Generations subsequent to the writers of the Gospels treasured many pious legends about Saint Joseph, and the Church assures us that he remains an actor in the life of the Church to this very day, but in terms of personal details, anecdotes, true life stories, there is silence.
Perhaps the silence of Saint Joseph is his most profound witness.
Saints are not celebrities, who leverage every detail about their lives as a means to be known and recognized. A saint is someone who in their desire to be like Christ is able and willing to disappear into the mission God gives to them. For some saints, this mission brings with it a great deal of attention. But for most saints, the life of grace involves a much lower profile and a death to self which requires an immersion into the most ordinary of circumstances. These circumstances are accepted by the saint because they know that it is precisely in the experience of what is apparently ordinary that God is accomplishing extraordinary things.
Therefore, it is all of us, who right now find ourselves immersed in the mission to be the unnoticed saints of ordinary circumstances, who know that the silence of Saint Joseph speaks louder than any words.