St. Joseph with baby Jesus by Francesco Cozza is an altar piece in the Chapel of St. Joseph, Basilica of Sant Andrea delle Fratte, in Rome, Italy. zatletic/AdobeStock

The Holy Silence of St. Joseph

As Mary was selected from all women, so Joseph was selected from all men for his special role

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Throughout the sacred Scriptures, men and women are called by God to take on totally unexpected roles. In the Old Testament, it was Noah, Moses, Abraham, David and Gideon, to identify a few. They were leading normal lives when, suddenly, God called them to become key parts of salvation history. Sometimes God summoned the individual, like Noah and Moses, and sometimes he sent an angel or prophet such as to Gideon and David. And so it was with Mary and Joseph in the New Testament.

They experienced a visit or visits from an angel, and in their cases God placed them in roles that surpassed those of every other human; they would become the mother and the foster-father of the Messiah.

While the New Testament discusses Mary with some frequency, little is said about Joseph. It seems strange that he is mentioned so few times — in fact, only 14 times, and all in the Gospels. Mark never mentions him by name and John on only two occasions. He is discussed in both Luke and Matthew, but it is very brief. No words are ever attributed to him — none. The other 23 books of the New Testament are silent; yet, Joseph was closer to Jesus than any other man.

That he was the earthly father of Jesus and the protector of Jesus and Mary would seemingly warrant giving him more attention. But the Scriptures are the Word of God, and the authors are divinely inspired, so perhaps the brevity, the silence, is purposeful — purposeful in the sense that Joseph’s actions and presence were such that more comments about him or a record of what he said isn’t necessary. Indeed, he was a man of action, not of words. The Bible introduces Joseph in the Gospel According to Matthew (1:18-25). An angel visits Joseph in a dream and announces what God has in store for him.

Joseph’s Annunciation

When Catholics speak of the Annunciation, we are referring to the announcement of the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. But similarly, Joseph experienced an annunciation during which an angel told him not only about the special role of Mary but that he too would be part of the Incarnation. Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary had agreed to be married.

There were two steps in getting married: first, in the presence of witnesses, a Jewish couple committed to marriage, and then, after a yearlong engagement, the bride went to live with her husband, almost always in the family home.

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Pope Francis on St. Joseph

“Often in life, things happen whose meaning we do not understand. Our first reaction is frequently one of disappointment and rebellion. Joseph set aside his own ideas in order to accept the course of events and, mysterious as they seemed, to embrace them, take responsibility for them, and make them part of his own history. Unless we are reconciled with our own history, we will be unable to take a single step forward, for we will always remain hostage to our expectations and the disappointments that follow.”

Patris Corde, No. 4

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During that first step, Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant and knew that the pregnancy was not caused by him because they had never been intimate. He considered divorcing Mary, but before he could act: “Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She shall bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’” (Mt 1:20-21).

As Mary was selected from all women, so Joseph was selected from all the men of the world for this special role. The future for Mary and Joseph was suddenly refashioned by God.

This experience would leave most men speechless and even a little shaken. Given circumstances and because he knew Mary to be a virtuous woman, Joseph was likely happy for the angel’s explanation about her pregnancy. As a devout Jew, he would know about the long-awaited Messiah, but, like anyone, he may have wondered why he was being entrusted with this role.

These and other questions could have been asked, but Joseph was silent. He says yes to the angel by taking action, by immediately taking Mary into his family home, ready to respond to whatever God wanted of him. Pope St. John Paul II explained it this way: “At the moment of Joseph’s own ‘annunciation’ he said nothing; instead he simply did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. And this first ‘doing’ became the beginning of ‘Joseph’s way.’”

“Joseph’s way” — that is, his silent acts of faithfulness to God, his love and commitment to the Blessed Mother and Jesus — will often be repeated.

The Birth of Jesus

Soon after Joseph took Mary into his Nazareth home, the couple went to Bethlehem. The purpose of this four-day journey, according to Luke 2:1-5, was to take part in an enrollment of all citizens. Bible experts debate just what kind of enrollment it was, perhaps some sort of periodic census for tax purposes, but apparently the head of each household had to enroll in his ancestral city. For Joseph, this was Bethlehem, the city of David. Mary was nine months pregnant, and most important about this trip was that the couple was complying, knowingly or not, with the prophecy of the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah / least among the clans of Judah, / From you shall come forth for me / one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Mi 5:1-4).

Bethlehem was filled with others coming to enroll; Mary and Joseph could not find a place to lodge and end up in a cave used as a stable. Certainly, Joseph desired more comfortable accommodations, but he accepted the stable because Mary was about to give birth. At some point, Joseph may have recognized God’s intention to enter the world in the humblest of surroundings, to be laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus the stable was the available lodging. There is no record that Joseph pondered such thoughts, but as is the case throughout his life, Joseph never questioned, but followed, the will of God.

Scripture says, at the birth of Jesus, only Joseph and Mary and likely some stable animals were present. Shortly thereafter, and to the young couple’s amazement, a group of shepherds arrived to pay homage saying that an angel had appeared to them and told them, “In the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” That announcement was accompanied by a “multitude of heavenly hosts with the angel praising God.” Joseph and Mary must have also seen and heard the glories of the night sky. Luke 2:6-20 describes this scene: “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

Although the sacred writer does not attribute Joseph with similar reflections about this miracle birth, this most sacred moment in time, certainly his heart would have been filled with joy. Joseph remains in the background, keeping the focus on the Blessed Mother and the divine infant.

The Circumcision and Presentation

Like all Jewish boys, Jesus was circumcised eight days after birth (cf. Lk 2:21). At this ceremony, Jesus received his name, and Joseph, by his presence, becomes the child’s legal father in the eyes of the law. Without any of his words recorded, Joseph stands with his family and in compliance with the commands of God, takes on the responsibility as head of the household.

Forty days after Jesus is born, the Holy Family goes to the temple. This visit has a twofold purpose: Mary will be purified after giving birth and Jesus, as the first male child, will be presented to God — both in accord with Jewish law (cf. Lk 2:22-28). After accomplishing these rituals, they come into the presence of a pious man named Simeon. This “righteous and devout” man had been waiting his whole life to see the “Messiah of the Lord” and now his wait is complete. Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will bring great sorrow into her life, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” Joseph is there with Mary and heard Simeon’s prophecy; at that moment he likely recommitted himself to her protection and happiness.

To Egypt and Return

St. Matthew, Chapter 2, the only Gospel to do so, tells of the Magi coming to adore Jesus who they call the newborn king of the Jews. King Herod heard this claim of a newborn king and immediately considered the child as a threat to his kingdom. He decreed that every male child two years old and younger be put to death.

In a dream, an angel told Joseph what the murderous Herod was doing and to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. Without any questions, Joseph obeyed; that very night he gathered his family together and departed for Egypt where they would be far away, out of the authority of Herod.

Joseph did not get upset or angry. He could have said: “This is an enigma. A short while ago you, yourself let us know that he [Jesus] would save his people. And now he is unable to save himself, we have to flee, to undertake a journey and suffer a long period away from home, this is contrary to your promise. Joseph does not reason in this way because he is a faithful man” (St. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on St. Matthew,” 8.4). The prompt, unhesitating response of Joseph to God’s messenger is the standard of obedience for all saints.

The journey to Egypt was difficult, over unforgiving lands, through sometimes severe weather, carrying a child some 100 miles to the safety of Egypt. There is no clear indication of where the Holy Family stayed, but there were Jewish communities along the Nile River, which was another 100 miles plus for them to travel.

Probably they had little more than the clothes they wore, so Joseph would have to find work quickly. For Joseph, protecting Jesus and Mary at all times, providing for their needs was his responsibility, and he did it without pause, trusting in God’s providence.

The Holy Family remained in Egypt until God sent an angel to Joseph during another dream telling him that Herod had died and to return to Judea. So now, Joseph, again without question, quits whatever job he had, packs up his family, and they begin the long journey back to Bethlehem. When they arrive in Judea, Joseph finds that Archelaus, son of Herod, is now the king and possesses many of the same corrupt virtues as his father. Joseph takes his family to Nazareth where it is safer and where they remain for the next 30 years.

Joseph will do much in the raising of Jesus, teaching the Jewish religion and laws, assisting in his general education and fashioning him in the work of a carpenter. Moreover, Joseph continues the duties as provider and protector of his family much like all the other fathers in Nazareth.

Tradition holds that Joseph humbly performs these roles until Jesus begins his earthly ministry. At that point, the Scriptures become completely quiet regarding Joseph, and the Bible gives no clue as to what happened to him. This kind of suspense would have been fine with Joseph for the attention of the world would slowly be focused on Jesus Christ. Despite the lack of recorded words, mankind knows that Joseph was chosen by God to watch over the Mother of God and the Savior of the World. He never failed in this sacred duty.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.

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The Silence of St. Joseph

“His silence is steeped in contemplation of the mystery of God in an attitude of total availability to the divine desires. … St. Joseph’s silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action. … Let us allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St. Joseph’s silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God’s voice, we are in deep need of it.”

— Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus, Dec. 18, 2005

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