Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron Saint of the Society of Jesus

Note: This commentary focuses on the Gospel passage from Matthew.

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:4-5,12-14,16; Romans 4:13,16-18,22; Matthew 1:16,18-21,24 or Luke 2:41-51

The Entrance Antiphon for today’s feast summarises the result of St Joseph’s encounter with the angel Gabriel:

The Lord has put his faithful servant in charge of his household.

When we read the Gospel from Matthew today, we find that Joseph is in a most awful dilemma. The woman to whom he is betrothed is pregnant before they have come together to live as man and wife. He does not know that the conception has been the work of the Holy Spirit and certainly doesn’t know that the Father of Mary’s child is God himself.

A Jewish betrothal was a much more binding relationship than our modern engagement. The couple could already be referred to as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, as Matthew does in his Gospel. In effect, the marriage had already begun. The betrothal could only be broken by a formal repudiation or a type of divorce.

At the same time, there were no intimate relations between the couple during this period. So one can see the terrible dilemma that Joseph was in. He was pledged to marry Mary, but it appeared – and this was the only natural conclusion he could come to – she had been unfaithful. During this time, the situation of a woman involved in adultery was a very serious matter. We know the story in John’s Gospel where a woman caught in an adulterous relationship is to be stoned to death according to the Law. Many men – perhaps we could say most any man – would have been upset, angry and totally humiliated.

Joseph sees only one possibility, to terminate the relationship. This could have been done in a very nasty way. It is the kind of thing we see regularly in our media. But Joseph, we are told, was a “righteous” (or ‘just’) man. In effect, this meant that he was zealous in observing the Law. But in this context it seems to have a deeper meaning, namely, that he was a very good man, a caring and sensitive man. At the same time, he does not want to go through the fiction of being regarded as the father of a child he did not conceive. He decides to go through with the termination of the relationship in as quiet a manner as possible, not exposing Mary to a public trial and stoning:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly.

Another explanation that has been given is that he was not willing to go through with the marriage out of reverence for the mystery of Mary’s motherhood which he does not fully understand.

In either case, he needs to be persuaded by a message from God that, in spite of appearances, he is to take Mary as his wife, that is, to go through a full marriage ceremony with her. He is further told that the Father of the child is God himself, and he is instructed to name the child Jesus:

…for he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.

The name ‘Jesus’, in fact, means ‘Yahweh saves’.

There is no doubt that Joseph fully deserves the title ‘righteous’. Someone might find him to be rather passive and naïve in such a situation, but events were to prove his restraint fully justified. We might look to him as an example when we are tempted to jump in with both feet in accusing people when the evidence seems very strong. But we know from experience that quite often we are wrong. And in being wrong we have often been unjust, cruel and vindictive. And, even when we are right, vindictive revenge or using the full weight of the law is hardly the best way to solve a failed relationship or even a betrayal. When we take revenge, our ‘enemy’ may suffer but very often so do we.

The other readings in today’s Mass are also linked with Joseph. The First Reading is taken from a prophetic statement made by the prophet Nathan to King David. God promises that David’s dynasty will succeed unlike that of his predecessor Saul:

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

These words are spoken directly about David’s son, Solomon.

Nathan continues, speaking in God’s name:

I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

While Nathan’s prophecy speaks of Solomon, it is seen also as God speaking of Jesus. Jesus is a descendant of David through Joseph, who belonged to David’s line. The sentence, then, has a double meaning: God and Joseph will be father to the newborn child. And, of course, through Jesus, the promise that David’s dynasty will last forever finds fulfilment. The promise of an everlasting dynasty is a theme of many later prophecies and generated the hope of a Messiah, who would deliver Israel.

The Second Reading from the Letter to the Romans is from a chapter which speaks of Abraham. The parallels with Joseph are again very strong. In this case, Paul’s emphasis is on Abraham’s faith. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, already in old age, still had no legitimate son. There was a son by a slave girl, Hagar, and he was called Ishmael. Yet God had told Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore or as the stars in the sky. Given their age, the couple could have laughed at this promise. But Abraham continued to believe and to hope:

Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So shall your descendants be.”

Paul emphasises that Abraham was rewarded, not because of his faithful observance of an external law, but because of his absolute trust in the word and the promise of God. In other words, it was not by his actions that he put God under an obligation to respond. God is never under such an obligation. Whatever we do for God is something that is owed to him anyway, and is done by the strength which he alone gives.

What God gives us when we are in a position of total trust is a free gift, charis, grace. And that gift is open to all who believe in him and:

…not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham…

Abraham is seen as the “father of many nations”, Jews and Gentiles alike. God’s love and grace is not confined to a certain group or class of people.

Like Abraham, we are to put our faith and trust in the same God:

…who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Abraham and Sarah were, for all intents and purposes, ‘dead’ as far as child-bearing was concerned. Yet God brought new life to them by bringing into existence a son who, in the eyes of many, could not exist. Yet, still, Abraham:

Hoping against hope…believed that he would become “the father of many nations”…

These similarities with Joseph are striking. Joseph, too, was a “righteous man”, a ‘just’ man. He was a man of great faith. It required great faith to believe that the child Mary bore came from God and was not the result of a natural relationship. He was a man of great integrity, who faced the situation with a great deal of self-restraint and sensitivity to Mary. He was a man of great humility, keeping quietly to the background as the drama unfolds. Yet he played an important role as surrogate father, protecting his wife and her child. He was there at Bethlehem when the child was born. He brought mother and child into Egypt to escape the murderous threats of Herod. He looked after them in their home at Nazareth and accompanied them on their journeys to Jerusalem for the great feasts. How anxious he must have been with Mary when the boy disappeared in the big city of Jerusalem, packed with strangers for the Passover!

In the Hebrew Testament there was another famous Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob. He was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and eventually became second in rank in the empire of the Pharaohs. And he, too, was the “go to” guy, because when:

…all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” (Gen 41:55)

Let us go to St Joseph to intercede for us in our needs. He has been chosen as patron many times, including being patron of the Church and Patron Saint of the Society of Jesus.

It would be nice, too, to think that some of Jesus’ qualities came from Joseph as much as from Mary. So, on this his feast day, let us ask him to let us share in some of his outstanding virtues: in his faith, his refusal to make hasty judgements in a difficult situation, his integrity and goodness, his humility and modesty and in accepting with grace his supporting role in the Holy Family, in his care for the Church.

Let us conclude with the Opening Prayer from today’s Mass:

You entrusted our Saviour to the care of Saint Joseph.
By the help of his prayers,
may your Church continue to serve its Lord, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen

Comments Off on Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron Saint of the Society of Jesus

Printed from LivingSpace - part of Sacred Space
Copyright © 2024 Sacred Space :: :: All rights reserved.