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Marrying Mary and the Fears of Saint Joseph

he Scriptures are mostly silent about the man who would become the father of Christ while He walked the earth. He does not even enter any of the scenes of Mark and John. He is given no words to speak in any of the Gospels. Even though he was of royal origins, belonging to the house of David, Butler says that Joseph nevertheless lived in “humble obscurity as a carpenter.” I see no contradiction here. Joseph was a maker of things; he worked with his hands, he lived by his actions, not by words. His was a hidden life. Aside from being the patron of the universal Church, of all fathers, and of a peaceful death, Joseph will later be named the patron of all workers (celebrated each year on the first of May), for all of us who silently toil to find a living on this earth. He quietly taught his son his trade for most of that time where the writers, too, were silent about the life of the Messiah—or in those missing pages between the times the young Christ was lost and found in the temple at twelve (the last mention of Joseph), until it was time for Him to start his mission around thirty in order to fulfill his destiny (when Joseph is already assumed to be dead). (The apocryphal date of Joseph’s death is 18ad.) That period of silence which always marks our youth, when a young man learns from his father how to work and to live; those wide-eyed days spent in the woodshed and those evenings warmed by the security of home—we must imagine that period to be a time of joy: one which only fathers and sons recognize. We must remember that Christ was first referred to by the people as the son of Joseph (Luke 4:23). Before it will be revealed to all that He came from the Father, he was first known to men as “a carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:54).

Gerrit van Honthorst. Childhood of Christ. 1620. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.    

But Joseph’s amazing story began not with joy and peace—but with great fear. In truth whenever the Scriptures speak about him, we see a Joseph who is always worried. And perhaps there was no greater perplexity than the one which he experienced in the beginning of a journey he could not have prepared for. In Matthew, it was Joseph and not Mary who had the great privilege of first receiving the announcement of the coming of Christ. But before learning that, Matthew tells us that Joseph was already betrothed, or promised, to Mary though they were not yet living together. Then one day Joseph finds out that the woman he was about to marry was with child. This naturally caused him great anxiety. He has not touched Mary, as an equally puzzled Mary in the annunciation scene in Luke would also testify before Gabriel when he came with the good news. So Joseph did not know that in Mary’s womb was the King of Kings, the Son of God. More so Joseph did not know that it was through the Holy Spirit, and not by another man, that the miracle of the conception was accomplished. How could a carpenter of simple means (or any man for that matter) even begin to imagine that?

James Tissot. The Anxiety of Saint Joseph. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Tissot depicts Joseph’s reservations upon learning that Mary was carrying a child in The Anxiety of Saint Joseph. In his humble workshop where he would spend most of his days, Joseph is shown here as industrious and disciplined: wood shavings are scattered on the floor, with all his tools within arm’s reach; he is covered with dirt and dust. But whereas life goes on for everyone else, like for the women on the street carrying jars of water to their homes, today is no ordinary day for Joseph. He soon has to make a decision. Marrying Mary was the plan he had set for himself, just as most men imagine having a wife by their side. Like most men again, he planned on having children, of living a full life and then dying in peace. But now he realizes that he might have to give up what might be his only chance of living a life in marriage with Mary.
      So Joseph here is lost in his thoughts. The scene borders between the comedic and the tragic. His gaze is distant and absent; squinting, he looks but does not see. His head is heavy, deep furrows line his forehead. Time has stopped, as it usually does for us when we face the few crucial crossroads of our lives. He leaves his duties for a moment for a chance to discern his predicament, to ponder—something we can imagine that a carpenter, whose art was in making things and not in reaching fine, abstract thoughts, was not used to. He is hunched over his workbench, losing the strong posture usually found in builders, because of the weight of a responsibility he might suddenly have to carry. What was he going to do? He was after all said to be already ripe with years at the time of his engagement to Mary, and Tissot’s Joseph, like the dust which covers him, is already grey. Time was no longer on his side.
We recognize this impasse. There are times when we find ourselves having to decide between what is our own good and what may be good for another. And when it comes to someone we love, it may happen that we have to let go, no matter how much this may hurt us. Because we know that there are times when it is only in letting go that the ones you love can live the life they deserve. Those moments of decision, our nights of Gethsemane, break us because they require from us sacrificing our own happiness for the happiness of the ones we love. But justice calls for hard decisions, and a judgment must be made after which someone would have to suffer. Paradoxically love may require from us to stop loving. And the first of Joseph’s many experiences of sorrows and fears (the Bible says there were seven) is nothing other than the greatest of our own sorrows and fears—of having to let go of someone we dearly love. Because hidden in those little farewells is a sadness tantamount to the final departure that death itself brings.
After what we can imagine was an intense period of discernment, considering solely Mary’s own good, Joseph decides that he will cancel the engagement. And herein lies his whole ethical dilemma: He knows only too well that a woman accused of adultery may be stoned to death, and he sees that it would be better to send Mary quietly away to save her from possible harm if others see her pregnant but without a husband. To save Mary’s life he gives up all his plans and dreams, his future. So it will be written: “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Being a just and righteous man—this meant he was not selfish, he did not think solely of his own good, and he had only tenderness for the young Mary who had more years to live than he did. And quietly—as fitting for a man of few words. He planned on divorcing Mary like a thief in the night, without protest for what could have been for most nothing but a betrayal, just as a man departs without saying goodbye.
The fear of Joseph would not last very long though. Like how God always guides his chosen ones, Joseph will receive many messages from on high. The assurances would come, as it did for his namesake in the Old Testament, in Joseph’s dreams. The first of his four dreams where an angel will be sent by God to warn him of what will soon transpire, is a message which will relieve him from his anxieties. After deciding that he would send Mary away, an angel visits him in his sleep, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). And like those many before him, Joseph will full of confidence follow God’s command without hesitation.

Philippe de Champaigne. The Dream of Saint Joseph. 1642-43. The National Gallery, London.

      The message of Champaigne’s angel in The Dream of Saint Joseph, is delivered, as Joseph usually was, silently. The angel here speaks not with words, but with the language of signs. The messenger points to God above as he points to Mary to say that the child she carries comes from the Father alone, and that it is from the Father’s will that the miracles to follow will be fulfilled. Whence comes Joseph’s peaceful sleep, no longer to be troubled (for the meantime) by his concerns for Mary, which he had thought will separate her from him. His plans of marrying Mary will not have to be relinquished; he no longer has to decide between his happiness and Mary’s safety. From now on it would be his very love for her that will save her and the Christ Child from harm. For God also speaks through the language of our own loves: His own love is translated in the form of human love, as only love can beget love, as only love can strengthen our own loves.
For from this point on, marrying Mary would mean that Joseph will become the protector, the custos, the custodian of her child who has come to save all. A responsibility at once frightening and beyond compare, never to be handed over to another man, the fate of mankind will fall in the calloused but skilled hands of our obscure carpenter. To protect the helpless Infant Jesus who did not come from him will precisely become his duty until the Christ grows up to be the man Joseph was commissioned to form in those years of silence, up until Christ inaugurates his public ministry at the marriage of Cana. Whence comes the appointment of Joseph as the patron of all fathers: like all fathers, and as in a second delivery, he will carry his Son and guide him until the Son discovers on His own who He really is and what He was destined to be. After which point, having accomplished his duties, and as most fathers often do, Joseph will vanish from the scene.

Guido Reni. St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus. c. 1620. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.    

oseph though will face many more trials on his way to delivering Jesus into manhood. These will cause many more fears and anxieties for him. For a father’s mind never settles; hidden behind his strong posture are his fears—for his wife, most especially for his son. Like mothers who never cease to care for their children—from the womb to childhood and to adulthood, at times even to the tomb (as in Mary’s case)—a man who assumes the high call of fatherhood will never be free from the anxieties brought about by a responsibility of protecting the gift of all gifts. But angels will always arrive. They will come every time to Joseph in his sleep to guide him on what the next steps will be so that he shall be delivered from the fear that all fathers assume from the moment they have children.

 In his second dream an angel orders Joseph to guide the Virgin and Child from Bethlehem and enter Egypt to save them from Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2:13-15). Mary is still recovering, and the newborn Christ, the yet fragile Savior, must be saved from the killing of the innocents. Imagine that frantic and dangerous flight with yet careful steps; the hasty departure from the warmth of home in order to enter an alien land—these Joseph braved for the Holy Family, these he endured yet again. Perhaps this is the reason why our Joseph often sleeps. He sleeps, of course, not because of idleness but mainly out of sheer exhaustion, from all the responsibilities that he was charged with from the time the Christ Child was born. But Joseph’s sleep is the sleep of the just. The wild days and the thousand and one things that fathers and mothers have to do under the sun will forever be difficult and taxing, to be sure. Yet there will always be the gentle hand of night, the gift of sleep and the consolations of rest for all weary souls at day’s end. Fittingly it would be his sleep, and the angels in his dreams, that will always give courage and reinvigorate the aging Joseph to save the Family and carry the day.

Orazio Lomi Gentileschi. Rest on the Flight into Egypt. 1625-26. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Francis recently said of Joseph, patron of the universal Church: “Sleeping, he looks after the Church.” “Joseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him,” and it was in his rest that his next duties will be issued. The irony is clear: you have to clear the space where God enters, prepare for His message, and like how the body and mind cede all their rights to the night in sleep, one must surrender to the will which is greater than our own fragile and weak wills. For fear comes solely from the knowledge of our weaknesses and limitations. Had we been omnipotent, if we shall not die, there is absolutely nothing to fear. There will always be a way, there will always be enough time for us to overpower and outlast the many troubles and trials which form the fabric of human life. But the message of Joseph, so silently delivered with eyes closed, is that one can always find rest. Not to escape our fears, not to cowardly suspend time for a while, never to simply attain the bliss of forgetting what may trouble us. No, we can rest because there is Someone who never sleeps—Someone to take care of what we have to leave for a while, to guard us, and to be a light in the night. Just as a child is able to sleep soundly because it knows that his mother watches over him—just as a child need not worry because the father already has plans for tomorrow.
And when it was time for Joseph to enter his final rest, it is believed that Jesus and Mary were by his side as he last closed his eyes. We cannot find better companions as we enter that good night. This is why we invoke Joseph for the grace of a happy death, that the Mother and Son may also be with us in the midnight of our lives. Finally at peace, Joseph will enter the Kingdom with the knowledge that he had worked diligently, had married the one he loved, and had accomplished all the duties asked of a father. All his fears would have then been conquered: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Giambattista Pittoni. The Death of Joseph. Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

Christmas 2015


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