The Way of BeautyGo to Joseph

St. Joseph’s role in salvation history celebrates the mystery of God’s dealing with a special man and his special vocation.  A unique grace was offered him, and he accepted God’s gracious gift.  It was entirely possible for him to turn away from it or reject. If, down through the ages, the beauty of Mary’s annunciation has inspired poetry, art, and music, the annunciation of Joseph merits similar artistry, for he stands with her, joint guardians of the Word-made-flesh.

Setting the Familiar Scene

To paraphrase the Matthean narrative (1:18-24): Joseph was anticipating his marriage to Mary, his betrothed. According to Jewish Law, the marriage contract had already been drawn up by the parents of both parties.  Once the groom took the bride into his home, the marriage would be finalized.  Joseph had prepared their home in Bethlehem, and their plan was to settle down to a peaceful married life.  Their plan.

What is the proverb?  Man proposes, God disposes. 

The Dilemma

The stage is set for God’s inscrutable plan to unfold, and Joseph’s drama is about to begin. Finding Mary pregnant, he is shaken to the core.  He is not the child’s father. Either Mary has been unchaste, or she has been raped.  Under this cloud, he may not live with her.  But he cannot live without her. (The biblical scholar, Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S., tells us that Mary’s strange pregnancy is the fifth listed in the Matthean genealogy of Jesus. Four other Old Testament women also had strange or scandalous pregnancies before marriage (A Coming Christ in Advent, 28.)  It will take two angels to present a preposterous alternative to their plan and then untangle its knot.   And what of the human plan?  It will be turned on its head. 

Joseph’s Sensitivity to Mary

The Law is clear. An unchaste woman must be stoned to death.  Joseph loves the Law and keeps it always in mind, but stoning Mary?  Unthinkable!  This horror cannot be allowed to happen. Though her pregnancy is deeply disturbing, he is convinced of her virtue and will not agree to a public trial. Nor will he permit her to be shamed or embarrassed.  The primacy of love is at work in Joseph’s heart.

Quietly, very quietly, Joseph will divorce her with no formal inquiry into details.  He won’t flaunt the Law, but he will save Mary’s life and reputation by putting her away.  How the plan is to be carried out, we will never know.  Back and forth it goes—the Law or a quiet divorce, a quiet divorce or stoning.  This is his dilemma with no obvious resolution. 

The problem follows him to bed.  It’s the decision of his life, and he must surely pray:  “God of my fathers, Lord of mercy, give me Wisdom, the attendant at your throne” (Wis. 9:6).

Joseph’s Righteousness

Scripture describes Joseph as a righteous man.  As a tekton, an artisan, a builder, he is known to deal honestly with others.  He who is righteous or just is a modest individual, one who can discern how to act in difficult situations, and above all, a person whose faith in God is steadfast and complete, even in the face of persecution. Many Old Testament figures like Joseph in Egypt are described as ‘righteous.’

Joseph’s Dream and the Angel’s Message

The subject of dreams and their interpretation is usually related to unresolved issues which may be left over from previous years or from current problems. 

So Joseph has a remarkable dream.  Most people wouldn’t make important decisions based on the mandate of a dream. But according to the wisdom of Depth Psychology, dreams offer us a latent truth about ourselves, however confusing.  The individual must decode the images so that, clearly, logically, the truth will emerge.

The angel speaks:

‘Joseph, you belong to the family tree of King David from whom the Messiah will be born.  You must not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the Child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, a mystery wrought by God.’

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‘Mary will give birth to a son, and you must name him Jesus. As the Child’s earthly father, you must give him his identity.  The Law requires it.  Without your consent, God’s plan for the world will be thwarted.  This Child will save his people from their sins.’ 

Joseph awakens with the certainty of Mary’s innocence. He will obey the angel’s message. Fear no longer grips him. He and Mary will be God’s instruments in the plan of salvation.  The angel of the Lord has untied the knot.  Peace floods his soul.  He hasn’t flaunted the Law.  Rather, he has discerned its depth according to God’s design.

Joseph’s Discernment

Throughout the Child’s infancy, Joseph faced many decisions that needed discerning, supported by faith and reason.  His faith excluded naiveté and superstition.  Still, there was a limit to reason, and, in the long run, in this singular event, reason had to be suspended in favor of the leap of faith and complete trust in God.

Patron of Discernment

Strictly speaking, the notion of discernment refers to making small and big decisions in the light of faith and at the level of faith.  We human beings are moved by a maze of complex motives which are driven by images, ideas, attractions, revulsions—in other words, spirits, good and bad.  We use the word spirit in a number of ways, for example, school spirit, the spirit of generosity, the spirit of ’76, the spirit of the Constitution.

When confronted with making a decision, certain variable emotions or spirits make us take notice.  Feelings of serving God’s pleasure or only my own may clash.  Certain feelings may pull us in the direction toward God, while others pull us away from God.  It’s a tug of war, the battle from within.

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Discernment may first involve a tug of war between choosing the good and the bad or between choosing the good and the better.  Prayer evens out this tug of war so that interior balance remains. When we can honestly tell ourselves that the good spirit is bringing us peace, joy, charity, and the like, then we can be virtually certain of a good decision.  If the opposite is true, that is, if in making a decision, unrest and agitation are present, we can almost always be sure that the decision is not a good one.   In “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt assigns these discerning words to St. Thomas More:

“God made the angels to show him splendor
As he made animals for innocence
And plants for their simplicity.
But to man, he gave an intellect
to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”

Out of Obscurity: A Patron for All and for All Seasons

There is good reason why Joseph is considered a hidden or forgotten saint. After the year 1,000, his name is mentioned in a few saints’ lists in Germany and Ireland.  In the Christian East, Joseph ranks as a minor figure in the life of Christ. 

Beginning in the fifteenth century, Joseph is depicted as an old man because the Church wanted to preserve the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity.  In the Counter-Reformation, he is depicted as the patriarchal head of the Holy Family, but he is still old and considered the foster-father of Jesus and not his earthly father, a more precise description. Following the leads of St. Bernardine of Siena and St. Francis de Sales, contemporary art rejects earlier depictions, and portrays the sound theology that Joseph was young, virile, and of marriageable age.  (Sandra Miesel, “Finding St. Joseph,” Online article).

Our saint is the patron of families, patron of fathers, patron of laborers and of organized labor.  He is the patron of many religious institutes named after him.  In him, we have a shining example of all the virtues needed for the Holy Family, the Christian family, or any family.  

Chi Mangia Bene Vive Bene

On March 19th, Joseph’s guidance over the family is celebrated mainly in Sicilian or Southern Italian families. An altar with fine linen is set up in his honor and is decorated with flowers, fruits, and fancy breads.

Epecially-prepared foods, including stuffed artichokes, a variety of fish, pane di San Giuseppe, pasta di San Giuseppe, zeppole di San Giuseppe, sfingi, and other sweet cakes are served in several courses.  Chi mangia bene vive bene—whoever eats well, lives well:  the boast of Italians.

St. Teresa of Avila: “Go to Joseph”

St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, encourages the Universal Church: 

“I do not remember even now that I have ever asked anything of St. Joseph which he has failed to grant.”

“I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessing which he can obtain from God.
“Though you have recourse to many saints as your intercessors, go especially to St. Joseph, for he has great powers with God.”

Go to Joseph.

Happy feast day.

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