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.