Joseph “was a righteous man.”1 What more needs to be said about him? How was his righteousness demonstrated? By his unwillingness to expose his betrothed to shame. What shame was he worried about being exposed? The shame of being pregnant with a child he knew wasn’t his. Rather than subject her to shame, maybe even to death as an adulteress, upon learning of her pregnancy, he decided to quietly cut ties with her. In his context, his decision was very merciful.
Another way Joseph’s righteousness is expressed is by his non-expression. Joseph never speaks a word in either Matthew’s or Luke’s Gospel. He seems intent to listen, to observe, and to act. According to the scriptures, he is a quiet man, a deeply good man. When it comes to God, a very obedient man.
After listening to the angel in his dream in today’s Gospel, he did what the angel told him to do, which was to go through with his marriage to Mary by taking her into his home. In the next chapter of Matthew, at the command of the angel, he took his family and fled to Egypt. He did this to avoid Herod’s jealous massacre of all the male infants in Bethlehem. According to Matthew’s narrative, after Herod’s death, Joseph did not bring his family back to Israel until he was prompted to do so by the angel of the Lord.
All of this, I think, gives a lesson about spiritual life. Namely, prayer is not having a one-way conversation with God. It is about listening to God. To listen, we must learn how to hear the Lord’s voice so that we know it is him we are listening to. This is called discernment. Not every thought that occurs to us while praying comes from God.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, gives us a way to discern the many forces that act upon us, even in, perhaps particularly in, the spiritual life. It is important to understand what is from God and what is not from God. This is yet another aspect of Joseph’s righteousness: his ability to discern the voice of God and his fortitude in carrying out God’s will, no matter what it is, even if it is packing up his family on a moment’s notice and moving to another country.
Joseph shows holiness in the ordinary circumstances of life. He shows us what it means, and what it looks like, to discern and then do God’s will. Hence, Saint Joseph is the Patron Saint of fathers, of immigrants, of the Universal Church, workers, and of a happy death. According to the Litany of Saint Joseph, he is, among other things, the hope of the sick, terror of demons, a mirror of patience, and model of workers.
Pope Francis dedicated the year from 8 December 2020 to 8 December 2021 (8 December being the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception) as the Year of Saint Joseph. This marked the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s designation of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Church. Since he was the guardian, the protector, and the earthly father of our Lord, it makes sense that he is the Guardian of the Church Universal.
As Pope Francis noted in his 2020 Apostolic Letter about him, “St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”2
It is through Joseph that Jesus is a member of the House of David. Bethlehem, as we heard in our first reading yesterday, is King David’s native place. It was to Bethlehem that Joseph went to be enrolled for the Roman census because he was of David’s lineage.
Finally, Joseph is often called “most chaste.” Calling the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Pope Francis noted, “is not simply a sign of affection.”3 Neither is it to merely reference his continent relationship to his wife. It is, as the Holy Father points out,
the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom 4This is quite a radical departure from how most of us learned about chastity. To be chaste does not fundamentally or mainly consist of saying “No” to this or that. In its essence, the virtue of chastity is to say “Yes”! Saint Joseph shows us that true freedom is not freedom from but freedom for. What freedom is for, ultimately, is to say “Yes” to God and to be a person for others. Freedom is fully realized in love, in self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Saint Joseph stands as a great model of how love of God leads theo-logically to love of neighbor.
St. Joseph, pray for us
Most just, pray for us
Most chaste, pray for us
Glory of family life, pray for us
Most prudent, pray for us
Mirror of patience, pray for us
Model of workers, pray for us
Hope of the sick, pray for us
Patron of exiles, pray for us
Terror of demons, pray for us
Protector of Holy Church, pray for us
1 Matthew 1:19.↩
2 Pope Francis. Apostolic Letter “With a Father’s Heart” [Patris Corde], Introduction.↩
3 Patris Corde, sec. 7↩
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