With Thanksgiving now behind us, Americans are now in the thick of the “Holiday Season,” you know, the annual public pretense that puts Kwanzaa and Hanukkah on a par with the Birth of God in time. (Not that I dismiss Hanukkah as historically meaningless. In a future «Ad Rem» I hope to make some un-e.c. [not ecumenically correct] comments on the true import of this Jewish Feast.)
Beyond the farcical expressions of worldly and irreligious “good will” that come from its secular observance, the “Holiday Season” also provides plenty of matter for the blasphemous blatherings of editorialists in secular and sectarian journalistic outlets. One or two such pieces may show up as specimens for comment in our Advent editions. To begin gearing up for Christmas, though, I thought I would pay tribute to St. Joseph, without whom there would be no Christmas, and whose pre- and post-Christmas-time protection over Mother and Child — the Church in vitro — have earned him the title “Patron and Protector of the Church.”
One of the questions that arise in reading the Gospel narratives of the Christmas story is this: “Just what was St. Joseph thinking when he ‘was minded to put [Mary] away quietly’”? Much of what is said on this subject is unworthy of it. For instance, talk often arises of St. Joseph’s “doubts,” a word the Scriptures do not use. When this topic came up in our refectory the other day, after the brethren gave their thoughts on the question, I decided to look at what one of my favorite authors has to say about it. In his The Life of Christ, Abbot Giuseppe (Joseph!) Ricciotti, has some penetrating considerations on the question.
First, here is the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel:
“Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.” (Mt. 1:18-20)
Here is Abbot Ricciotti (not wanting to bother with Greek fonts, I have taken the liberty to transliterate the few Greek words in the text):
“Matthew tells us that Mary is the spouse of Joseph and before they came together she is found with child. Joseph has not been forewarned of the supernatural conception and only later, when it has been accomplished, does he become aware of it (Matt. 1:18) — probably not until after Mary’s return from her visit to Elizabeth, that is, in the fourth of fifth month of her pregnancy. When she returned to Nazareth, which she had left immediately after the Annunciation, her physical condition was evident, but Joseph did not know what had gone before. “Whereupon Joseph her husband (aner), being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her (deigmatisai), was minded to put her away privately (Matt. 1:19). In light of what we know about the laws governing the betrothal-marriage among the Jews, these words offer no difficulty. Joseph, a legitimate ‘husband,’ could ‘have put Mary away’ by giving her a bill of divorce, which would have exposed her to public reproach. To avoid this, he considers ‘putting her away privately,’ and he decides to do this ‘being a just man.’ This last phrase is the most important in the whole sentence and the true key to the explanation.
“In a case of that kind, an upright and honest Jew who was convinced of his wife’s guilt would nave given her a bill of divorce with no further ado, considering this not only his right but perhaps also his duty, for a passive and silent tolerance of the situation on his part might seem approval and even complicity. Joseph, on the other hand, precisely because he is a ‘just man,’ does not do this; therefore, he was convinced of Mary’s innocence and consequently decided it was unjust to expose her to the dishonor of a public divorce.
“On the other hand, how could Joseph explain Mary’s actual condition? Did he perhaps think that while blameless herself, she had suffered some violence during those three months of absence? Mary’s continued and deliberate silence — which would have been natural, after all, for a reserved maiden in those circumstances — might well favor a suspicion of that kind. Or did Joseph come closer to the truth and catch some glimmering of the supernatural, of the divine, in what had happened? We do not know because Matthew says nothing about it; but from Joseph’s decision to break his bond with Mary without injuring her reputation, we conclude that he acted both as one convinced of her innocence and as a ‘just man.’”
In the book, this paragraph ends with a footnote, which I reproduce here:
“Christian tradition is not unanimous in its interpretation of Joseph’s conduct. Not a few of the Fathers, including Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, and others, who are followed today by some modern scholars (Fouard, etc.) think rather crudely that Joseph truly suspected Mary’s behavior; but this does not tally with his ‘being a just man’ nor with his intention to put her away ‘privately.’ Some writers go to the opposite extreme and believe Joseph was already informed of Mary’s supernatural motherhood and therefore decided to leave her out of a profound sense of humility. This interpretation is very pious but not very sensible for it contradicts Matthew’s narrative and makes the subsequent intervention of the angel, who warns Joseph in a dream, useless and illogical. The correct interpretation is that pointed out by St. Jerome, who, while he gives due consideration to the phrase, ‘being a just man,’ also asserts that Joseph never doubted Mary and hence finds himself facing an insoluble problem: “How does it happen that Joseph, while he conceals the guild of his wife (uxoris) is called ‘just’? The truth is that his silence is a witness of Mary’s innocence, since Joseph, knowing her chastity and dumbfounded by what has happened, conceals by his silence the mystery which he does not understand’ (in Matt. 1:19).”
Father Feeney thought, as did others, that St. Joseph accompanied Our Lady to the house of Sts. Zachary and Elizabeth for the Visitation. However, the Abbot’s larger considerations do not stand contradicted in such a scenario. Also by way of objections, it may be a translator’s mistake, but to speak of St. Joseph’s “decision” to put away Our Lady is rash. He was minded to do so, that is, he considered it. To call this “indecision” a “decision” is, I believe, inconsistent with the Abbot’s reference to St. Joseph’s “perplexity” in this difficult situation.
Mary’s profound silence, which the Abbot skillfully brings into relief, is worthy of meditation. How could the Spouse of the Holy Ghost speak of the Mystery that had been accomplished in her? Even at the Visitation, her Magnificat makes only general reference to the “great things” the Mighty One has done to her. It was St. Elizabeth who disclosed the Mystery when, under inspiration, she called her little cousin the “Mother of my Lord.” Contrary to contents of certain false Marian apparitions, the Blessed Virgin is not the “Virgin Most Loquacious.” Her praiseworthy modesty, silence, and reserve would have heightened St. Joseph’s perplexity in the face of the Mystery of the Incarnation. It would not be the only time that the workings of God’s grace in one soul caused another devout soul consternation. God often works that way for the betterment of all concerned. (Consider, for instance, the losing of the Child in the Temple, an episode which caused St. Joseph and Our Lady pain, or the episode of Martha and Magdalene and the dishes, or the best of all examples, the Sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the Cross). Such episodes can be the best occasions of spiritual growth. The challenges of family life and religious life can be transformed into such occasions, if we use them right.
In his comments, St. Jerome, I believe, gives proper place to the sanctity of both Spouses as well as to the evidence of the Scriptures. More than that, he artfully probes a bit into the beautiful psychology of a “Just Man” dumbstruck in the face of a divine mystery. All those who experience perplexities (and you know who you are!) have a powerful and understanding model and advocate in St. Joseph. Doubtless the Patriarch of Nazareth suffered through all this, but — equally doubtless — he prayed. And God sent him an answer through an angel.
Personally, I have found great comfort in turning to St. Joseph in moments of personal perplexity and indecision. Since I’m currently asking him for some big favors, I owe him some publicity. Please pray to St. Joseph. Honor him. (I suggest his litany.)
May the Head of the Holy Family and the Patron and Protector of Holy Mother Church help us all through the perplexities of life.