Every March, we recall the heroic virtues of the holy husband of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph.
Coming to appreciate St. Joseph’s mystery
If anyone had a special insight into the parable of the hidden treasure, it was unquestionably St. Joseph: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then, in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Mt 13:44-46). Is that great pearl a “what” or a “who”? According to Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM, Cap., the preacher of the papal household, “the hidden treasure, and the precious pearl, are nothing other than Jesus himself” (Gospel Commentary for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 2008). What is it about Joseph, in this month of March, his month, that would have given him special insight into the hidden ways our Lord lived and worked?
Our Church extols Joseph’s treasures of holiness and beauty, his heroic and silently paternal vocation, hidden for centuries. St. Joseph was, for too long, either forgotten or worse, neglected and ridiculed: “Very early, indeed (from the second century), the apocryphal gospels—the more or less, golden legends—transformed St. Joseph into a feeble old man, sometimes silly and ridiculous, as in some mysteries of the Middle Ages. And, suddenly, all the admiration, all the tenderness, all the praises of the faithful went to Mary and Jesus by neglecting this shadow, this caricature of a man who accompanies them. … How, then, to marvel at this mismatched couple of a very young woman and an old man? How not think about it as a pseudo-marriage, a social facade without inner truth?” (Abbé Henri Caffarel, the founder of Équipes Notre-Dame, 1983.)
St. Joseph by Murillo
Not anymore: today, confronted with “the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society,” we are looking for the inspiration “to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person” (Benedict XVI, Prayer Vigil, London, September 18, 2010), to the heroic virtues of the holy husband of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, “into whose custody God entrusted his most precious treasures” (John Paul II), who “saved the Child Jesus from mortal danger” (Leo XIII), and who “fed him, whom the faithful must eat as the Bread of eternal life” (John Paul II).
So, two thousand years before our time, we look back upon the threshold of a Jewish Orthodox house, at the father of a family, apparently not different from many others in Israel. As others struggling under the Roman occupation, here, we come to contemplate the most sublime mystery for some, and the most shameful scandal for others: a most amazing prayerful act of acceptance, a most radical and heroic fiat allowing Mary to speak her own ultimate fiat, and, thus, stay close to defend and to love her, knowing all along that she could never be totally his. In his silence, we cannot know how he experienced such surrender: “The Gospels do not record any word ever spoken by Joseph along that way. But the silence of Joseph has its own special eloquence, for, thanks to that silence, we can understand the truth of the Gospel’s judgment that he was ‘a just man’” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos).
And yet, even if the Gospels are silent on the innermost feelings and thoughts of St. Joseph, the pious Christians, of all nations and of all generations, were meditating and interpreting both his fiat and his silence: “Having doubtful thoughts, the righteous Joseph was troubled; for he suspected a secret union, as he beheld you, unwed, O blameless one. But, when he learned of your conception through the Holy Spirit, he cried: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” (Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, according to Saint Matthew 1).
St. Joseph’s paternal vocation
According to the genealogical lists of the Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, the paternity of St. Joseph survives the two millennia history of wanderings, sufferings, as well as divinely inspired hopes of Israel, crowned with the birth of the Word made flesh, in the bosom of the Holy Family, “according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendents” (Lk 1:55).
Hence, the following insight becomes central for our meditation: Jesus’ humanity is fundamentally that of St. Joseph, his father, “not after the flesh but after the spirit” (cf. Rom 8:1). Yes, if St. Joseph is silent in the Gospels, the Gospels are not at all silent about why and how St. Joseph has assumed, willingly and prayerfully, his noble and joyous vocation of being the foster-father of the Word made flesh, with his own fiat implying his free and unlimited acceptance of all trials, sufferings, and misunderstandings, which, providentially, Jesus will endure later during his messianic mission.
The meaning of the genealogies of St. Joseph
How many times have you listened, dear reader, to homilies on the genealogical list found in the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel? “To modern man, the genealogy of Jesus, as found in the first sixteen verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel is, at best, an absurd concatenation of sounds. The succession of Old Testament names, in quasi-Greek or Latin versions, recalls an incantation or spell; it is both grotesque and comical,” writes a modern Catholic writer. Still, all serious Christian interpreters—Catholic, Greek-Orthodox and Protestant—agree that the unavoidable tediousness notwithstanding, “the genealogy is important, because it proves Jesus is of the lineage of David, qualified to be the Messiah.”
The first listeners and readers of St. Matthew’s genealogy had the first-hand knowledge of the Holy Scriptures—their religious and national memory, the written Torah—which, according to authentic rabbinical teaching, was transmitted, from generation to generation, in parallel with the oral Torah (i.e., the oral tradition of interpretation of Scriptures). It is important to stress that this oral tradition was well known to, and appreciated by, the Fathers of the Church (as it is also acclaimed today by the Pontifical Biblical Commission). For these first Jewish Christians, the very human, and imperfect, genealogy of Jesus Christ—the son of the carpenter, Joseph—was the historical, real-life personification of the mysterious ladder of Jacob’s dream (cf. Genesis 28), the divine, angelic and human ladder of the deployment of the mystery of Incarnation.
Moreover, for these men and women (mostly fathers and mothers themselves), the genealogy of the Messiah was full of awe and mystery, meaning and significance. Take, for example, a phrase or term, repeated, over and over in this genealogy: “became the father of,” or genuit in Latin. Here, the first Christians would have rejoiced to have heard how, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,” and so on, 39 times in all! For these women and men, such names were resplendent with very personal and nostalgic religious, moral, and even national lessons. Such genealogies teach us that we belong to a particular family, of a particular place and time, and as Christians, we come to hear that our faith is historical. It now includes, not only the select few of the ancient covenant, but the world, and all human souls, as they are beckoned into Christ’s own body, the Church.
Four Holy Lessons
After the miracle of the first Pentecost, and the ensuing miraculous emergence of the Jerusalem Church, the apostles and evangelists—St. Matthew and St. Luke among them—became fully aware that the miracles of the mission, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, were the ultimate manifestations of the miracle of incarnation: the mystery of the Word made Flesh.
At the center of this ongoing discovery of the significance of these sacred mysteries, stands the Virgin Mary: from the beginning of the Lord’s mission at the wedding at Cana, to his sufferings and crucifixation at Golgotha, to his presence among the apostles after his resurrection, to his ascension, to the Pentecost fires. Mother Mary showed how this new family, of brothers and sisters, were becoming the adopted children of God. Perhaps, this is why St. Matthew insisted on a genealogy: to teach his brothers and sisters in Christ these lessons of our faith:
(1) The preparation of the mystery of the Word made Flesh started with Abraham’s wanderings, prayers, divine trials, his incredible fatherhood, and the divine pledge to “make of him a great nation, to bless him, and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). Moreover, St. Joseph’s fiat is fully anticipated by those of Abraham: the Rabbinic exegesis, easily verifiable by any attentive reader of the Scriptures, counts at least ten of them, from Abram’s departure from his father’s home and nation, to the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.
(2) Patiently, God guided Abraham to the abnegation of his macho inclinations, both toward his spouse, Sarah, and his son, Isaac, and eventually, to the total abnegation of his self-centeredness. Indeed, as St. Joseph was encouraged by the Angel to trust his fiancé—in spite of the “logic” of the world—so, too, Abraham was persuaded by God to trust his spouse, Sarah (who, according to the Rabbinic tradition, was as close to God as Abraham), in a more than delicate situation: “Heed the demands of Sarah, no matter what she is asking of you” (Gen 21:12).
Moreover, God had twice, patiently dissuaded Abraham from expecting that his heir was to be anybody else—Lot or Ishmael, for example—but his and Sarah’s future son, no matter how farfetched, if not just ridiculous, it might appear to both Abraham, and Sarah (cf. Genesis 18). As such, all spiritual descendants of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph are called to holiness, to imitate this first couple’s own fidelity, sacrifice, and sufferings. In so doing, all of God’s people are now called to recognize the perfect, most holy, and most marvelous manifestation of the family, and, therein, to see their own vocations of loving motherhood and fatherhood.
(3) The third important lesson of these genealogies is the historical confirmation of the Christian faith. The Church is the new Israel, the people to whom God is ever faithful. With God as our King, nothing, and nobody, can obstruct the deployment of his divine mercy, nor forestall the coming of the Kingdom of God. He never abandons his people; upon hearing their pleas, he always intervenes. Thus, alongside the 40 generations of men and fathers of this family, the genealogy of St. Matthew mentions four women, who are four mothers, noting three by name: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the fourth one, as “the wife of Uriah,” who is Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon.
Their presence in the genealogy is certainly significant, since not all spouses and mothers are included in this list. As to the Rabbinical exegesis of the Scriptures, all these women have contributed to the chain of descendants of Abraham, leading to St. Joseph and Jesus, by conceiving their children in most unusual circumstances: in some cases, correcting a fault of a patriarch, or of a king of Israel, and, thereby, restoring the solidity of “the ladder of Jacob,” leading to the Holy Family. Bathsheba was carrying out her motherly mission under the duress of the tragic consequences of King David’s passion and crime (cf. Samuel 2). However, the first three women mentioned all came from nations foreign and hostile to Israel: Tamar, a young woman from a noble family, and twice a daughter-in-law of the failed patriarch, Judah (cf. Genesis 38); Rahab, a God-fearing prostitute of Jericho at the time of the prophet Joshua, who saved the lives of his luckless spies (cf. Joshua 1); and, Ruth, the princess of Moab, the sworn enemy of Israel, who would become the grandmother of King David (cf. Ruth). Yet, all these women are singularly inspired by the beauty and justice of the divine vocation of Israel. All three would make, at a crucial juncture of their lives, a free, judicious, and extremely dangerous choice to join the destiny of Israel for their good, and for Israel’s ultimate good, which was the coming of the Messiah.
(4) Finally, as it evident from all four Gospels, the Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph, were fully conscious of their holy heritage, humbly aspiring to be worthy of both the designs of the God of Israel, as well as the merits of their saintly ancestors. Re-read the dialogues of the Virgin Mary with the Angel, and with her cousin Elisabeth, her Magnificat hymn of thanksgiving; the prophetic thanksgiving of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, to the God of Israel, who “has helped Israel, his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Lk 1:54-55).
Scripture is often silent on the person, and the role, of St. Joseph. Yet, we see in retrospect how the Lord used Joseph’s trust, his unmentioned fiat, to assist the birth of the new Israel—the Son of God, made man. He is the patron and protector of our Lady, and, therefore, of our Church, because he continues to watch over the Messiah’s ongoing incarnation, now extended through Christ’s holy sacraments, in and through his holy Church, through all ages. Scripture acknowledges the prefiguring of St. Joseph’s holy vocation as a protector and loving husband and father. During March, the Church gives us this feast to celebrate how all hopes and dreams of Israel have become fact, have become flesh.