St. Joseph and the Birth of Jesus

Today, we offer a few thoughts on St. Joseph’s role in the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the writings of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

ST. JOSEPH’S EXCEPTIONAL MISSION

To St. John the Baptist was entrusted the task of announcing the immediate coming of the Messiah. It can be said then that he was the greatest precursor of Jesus in the Old Testament; and it is in this sense that St. Thomas understands our Lord’s pronouncement in St. Matthew’s Gospel:  “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of woman a greater than John the Baptist.”  But our Lord immediately adds: “Yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The kingdom of heaven is the Church on earth and in heaven, the New Testament surpassing the perfection of the Old although some just men of the Old have been holier than many of the New. And in the Church who is “he that is the lesser”? These mysterious words have received more than one interpretation. They make us think of words spoken later by Jesus: “For he that is the lesser among you all, he is the greater.”

The lesser means the most humble, the servant of all, and therefore, because of the connection and proportion of the virtues, the one who has the greatest charity. And who in the Church is the most humble? He who was neither apostle nor evangelist nor martyr—exteriorly at least—nor pontiff nor priest, nor doctor, but who knew and loved Christ Jesus certainly no less than the apostles, the Evangelists, the martyrs, the popes and doctors of the Church: the humble artisan of Nazareth, the humble Joseph.

The apostles were called to make the Savior known, to preach the gospel that men might be saved. Their mission, like John the Baptist’s, belongs to the order of grace necessary for the salvation of all; but an order still higher than the order of grace exists, one constituted by the very mystery of the Incarnation, the order of the hypostatic or personal union of the humanity of Jesus with the very Word of God. Mary’s unique mission of divine motherhood adjoins this order, and Joseph’s hidden mission also, in a sense, has a like position. . . .

Bossuet expresses all this with lovely clarity in his first panegyric on this great saint when he tells us:

“Among vocations I have noticed two in the Scriptures that seem direct opposites, the apostles’ and Joseph’s. Jesus is revealed to the apostles to be announced throughout the universe; He is revealed to Joseph to be passed over in silence and to be kept hidden. The apostles act as light, to show Jesus Christ to the world. Joseph serves as a veil to cover Him; and under this mysterious veil are hidden for us Mary’s virginity and the Savior’s greatness. . . . He who glorifies the apostles with the honor of preaching glorifies Joseph with the humility of silence.”

Before the manifestation of the first Christmas should come, it had to be prepared for by thirty years of hidden life. For each of us perfection consists in doing what God wills in the life to which He has called us. Joseph’s entirely exceptional vocation seems, in its silence and obscurity, to surpass the calling of the greatest apostles, touching so closely the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation. After Mary, Joseph appears nearer than anyone else to the Author of grace; and if he was, then he received in the silence of Bethlehem, during the sojourn in Egypt, and in Nazareth’s little home, more graces than any other saint will ever receive. His special mission in regard to Mary consisted chiefly in contracting with the Mother of God a real and absolutely holy marriage.

According to the account given in St. Matthew’s Gospel, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in his sleep and told him: “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.” Mary was really his wife by a true and entirely heavenly marriage, which was to have a fruitfulness wholly divine. The initial fullness of grace given to the Virgin in view of her divine motherhood in a sense evoked the mystery of the Incarnation.

As Bossuet says: “The virginity of Mary drew Jesus down from heaven. . . . Since her purity made her fruitful, I have no fear to assert that Joseph had his part in this great miracle; for if angelic purity is Mary’s treasure, this treasure lay in the keeping of the just Joseph.”

Joseph, in the simple framework of a village carpenter’s life, had the privilege of sharing in a stainless and reverent union with the most perfect creature that God has ever made. He has drawn nearer the Mother of God than any other saint, more closely allied than anyone else to the Mother of all men, Joseph himself included. Under all her titles as co-redemptrix, universal mediatrix and distributer of all grace, Joseph loved Mary with the purest and most devoted love, a love that can rightly be called theological, for he loved the Virgin in God and for God, because of all the glory that she gave to God.

The beauty of the whole universe bears no comparison to the sublime union of these two souls, a union created by the Most High, giving delight to the angels and joy to God Himself. As to Joseph’s exceptional mission in regard to our Lord, we know that in all truth the Word of God made flesh was confided to him rather than to any other of the just men of all generations. The holy old Simeon took the child Jesus into his arms for a few moments and saw in Him the salvation of the people, “lumen ad revelationem gentium,” but Joseph looked after Him night and day during His whole infancy, often holding in his arms the Child in whom he beheld his Creator and Savior. From Him he received grace upon grace during the long years when he lived with Him in closest daily intimacy, watching Him grow, contributing to His human education, receiving His obedience.

(Joseph) is commonly called the “foster father of the Savior,” but he was in a sense more than that for, as St. Thomas points out, by marriage a man becomes a child’s “foster father” or “adopted father” only accidentally; while there was nothing at all accidental in Joseph being given charge of Jesus. He had been created and put into the world for just that end. It was his predestination, and in view of his wholly divine mission Providence had accorded to him all the graces that he had received from his infancy, graces of deep piety, of virginity, of prudence, and of perfect fidelity.

In the eternal designs of God, Joseph’s union with Mary existed simply for the Savior’s protection and education, and Joseph received from God a father’s heart to care for the Child Jesus. This was his principal mission; in view of it he received sanctity proportionate, in a sense, to his rank, to the mystery of the Incarnation, which dominates, in its infinite reaches, the whole order of grace.

Sinibaldi’s recent work, La Grandezza di San Giuseppi, brings out St. Joseph’s eternal predestination as the Blessed Virgin Mary’s spouse, explaining with St. Thomas the threefold fitness of such a predestination. The Angelic Doctor established the same point himself; asking whether it was fitting that Christ should be born of a virgin who had contracted a real marriage, he gave as his answer that it was fitting for the sake of Christ Himself, His Mother, and us. It was highly fitting for our Lord Himself because, until the time should come for the mystery of His birth to be manifested, He would not then be considered an illegitimate son and would have protection during His childhood. For the Blessed Virgin it was no less fitting because it kept her from being judged a guilty adulteress and stoned as such by the Jews, as St. Jerome observed; it also served to protect her in the difficulties and persecution that began with the Savior’s birth.

It was, St. Thomas adds, very expedient for us, too, because we thus learn through testimony above suspicion, Joseph’s, about Christ’s virginal conception; in the human order of things, his testimony also lends support to Mary’s. Lastly, it was supremely fitting that we should find in Mary at once the perfect model of virgins, of wives, and of Christian mothers. Herein lies the explanation of why, according to some authors, the eternal decree of the Incarnation, so far as it must be realized hic et nunc, in such and such determined circumstances, included not only Jesus and Mary but Joseph as well.

From all eternity indeed it was decided that the Word of God made flesh should be born miraculously of Mary ever virgin united to the just Joseph in bonds of true marriage. St. Luke thus expresses the carrying out of this providential decree: “And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” . . .

In a discourse that was given in the Consistory Chamber on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1928, His Holiness Pope Pius XI compared St. Joseph’s vocation with St. John the Baptist’s and St. Peter’s. There is significance, His Holiness said, in the fact that God raises up certain magnificent and lustrous figures so near to one another as to be almost contemporaries: St. John the Baptist, who came out of the desert with a voice now thundering like a roaring lion and now speaking with the accents of the friend of the bridegroom rejoicing at the bridegroom’s glory, and at the last offering up before the world the glory of his own martyrdom; Peter, who heard the divine Master speak to him divine words that bore witness about him before all men of all ages: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church.” “Going therefore, teach ye all nations.”

His was a magnificent and divinely radiant mission. Between these two, St. Joseph’s appears, in recollection and in silence, almost unperceived and unknown, coming to light only centuries later when its silence was to be broken by a resounding hymn of glory.  There where the mystery lies deepest, the surrounding night grows darkest, the silence grows greatest, the highest mission is to be found, accompanied and reechoed by a happy necessity in a brilliant retinue of virtues and merits. It is a unique and very high mission to guard the Son of God, the King of the world, to watch over the virginity and sanctity of Mary, to have a hidden place and share in this great mystery, shielded from the eyes of the centuries while cooperating in the Incarnation and Redemption.

All Joseph’s sanctity lies precisely in the completely faithful accomplishment of this great and humble mission, so high and so hidden, so splendid and so surrounded with shadows. [End Quote]

So, in the shadows of these dark times, we see a light growing brighter, as the mission of St. Joseph becomes clearer.

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The preceding essay is from  Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s essay, “St. Joseph, model of the hidden life and first among the saints”.