We are living in a world of speeches. We are accustomed to listening to people speaking endlessly nowadays. The well-crafted words count in the public sphere. Even people expect us to articulate our ideas and thoughts in clear terms. When we attend, for example, an interview, we are judged at that moment based on how well we expressed our ideas in words. In other words, our words and speeches are equated with our values, convictions, and the whole personality. To a great extent, it is very true that our words reveal who we are. But our Christian life experiences reveal to us that our actions show who we are more than our words. This month we are invited to reflect on the person St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus who spoke less but did much. He was a faithful husband to Mary and a caring father to Jesus; he knew the highs and lows of family struggles; he showed courage, prudence, trust, and patience in God who would not abandon him as various events in the family took numerous twists and turns.
The gospel writers in the New Testament do not give a detailed account of the life of St. Joseph except a few references, very significant though, in the initial chapters of Matthew and Luke. Even in those places, he hardly speaks anything. Instead, he appears in a chain of events. He remains a mystery for the believers. He, however, stands tall as a person not to be dissected by our sharp and precise reasoning to satisfy our curiosity; rather he has to be contemplated or meditated upon to draw inspiration for our lives and relationships.
Joseph was an ordinary carpenter in Jewish society (Matt 13:55). He might have worked hard to meet both ends in the family. But God seemed to have seen his heart to be worthy of placing the savior of the world in his hands. Jesus was not the son of Joseph. Joseph was the foster father of Jesus and a descendant of David. God wanted him to make Mary's son part of David's family. Jesus is both a legitimate son of David through Joseph, and the Son of God conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit by a virgin mother. St. Mathew writes that Joseph was an upright man (Matt 1:19). When we call someone upright, we mean that person is honest, straightforward, just, virtuous, etc. Joseph’s expression of uprightness quite surprisingly overrides our common understanding of being upright. His wife Mary was found to be pregnant. The immediate reaction of a young man, who is about to marry her, would be anger, disappointment, a sense of betrayal, and confusion. One could go to any extent to avenge such betrayal in our society. Surely his society was not quite different from ours. The punishment for women found with child before marriage is stoned to death. He knew the law well, but he did not prove his righteousness by applying the law literally. The so-called upright in our society try to show that they are right by bringing the other person to harsh punishment; they expose the misdeeds by all means at the cost of human dignity because they claim to be right. What makes him noble is the execution of his uprightness. Curiously Joseph's uprightness flows from the familiarity with God who is loving, compassionate, and merciful. "Then, Joseph, her husband, made plans to divorce her in all secrecy…did not want to disgrace her (Matt 1:19). He wanted to uphold the dignity, integrity, and honor of Mary. He valued the human person. He knew that mercy is greater than the law. Perhaps Jesus might have learned from Joseph when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27)?
Further, he must have been tormented and confused by the new revelation of Mary's pregnancy, the gossips, and rumors of the people around, the imminent collapse of his prestige and honor. So many voices might have warred in his mind and heart to counsel him one way or the other. When one is in the state of turmoil, the dark forces around us are at work much more vigorously disabling the person to see things clearly in life. How many families are broken up due to wicked counsels? But Joseph was able to hear the gentle, small voice of the angel of the Lord in his dream. He was very attentive to listen to God in spite of what he judged to be the right thing for himself. He could say with the psalmist: “I bless Yahweh, who is my counselor, even at night, my heart instructs me" (Ps 16:7). The angel of the Lord brought the message of courage, and clarity to him and the truth of Mary's conception was revealed to him. He took Mary as his wife courageously keeping aside all his plans. He chose to do what God instructed him to do. There is a need for patience, humility, and eagerness in prayer to seek the counsel of the Lord at times of doubts and confusion and act according to the counsel of God. “We know that all things work good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rm 8:28).
When Joseph realized that it was God’s plan to bring up the child, he selflessly offered himself to that invitation. He showed the utmost fidelity to the family. At the middle of the night, he had to flee to Egypt to save the child and the mother. He put forward the safety and security of the family instead of his. He was aware of the morbid fear of death, insecurity and bleak future in exile, and a hostile climate in an alien land. He faced all those hurdles bravely and silently trusting in the promises of the Lord. Today so many fathers and mothers are going through similar situations of helplessness and disappointments as the world brings new challenges to dismantle the personal and family relationships constantly. The life of Joseph is a call to attune our hearts to listen to God in spite of the ups and downs that the family life brings along. And also he teaches how to remain courageous, faithful, and focused on God who is our refuge and stronghold. St. Ignatius says, “Love ought to show itself more by deeds than by words.” St. Joseph is an eloquent example of this fact. Let us keep praying for joy and happiness in all families through the intercession of St. Joseph. God bless.
Fr. Perianayagam SJ, Berkeley CA.