Joseph and the Rediscovery of Love

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project“Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

The Bible tells us little about St. Joseph, but what it does tell us is a magnificent example of this principle.

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Joseph was betrothed to Mary. The Jewish betrothal ceremony had more weight than our engagement; they were effectively married, just awaiting the moving-in ceremony. Yet when he found her “with child through the Holy Spirit,” Joseph decided to send her away. (Our imprecise modern translations say, “divorce,” but the Greek is more like, “set her loose.”) The first thing we can see is that the coming of Jesus confused Joseph’s plans.

Reading quickly, we sometimes mistake Joseph’s motives – and in the process, we mistake the strength of their relationship. Perhaps he thought Mary had been with another man. But surely no one who knew Mary would think that.

Rather, it says that he found her with child through the Holy Spirit. The text allows us – and the context compels us – to think he knew the child was divine. He sent her away not because he thought she was bad, but because he thought she was too good for him. It says he wanted to send her away because he was righteous; like any righteous Jew, he did not dare step into the sanctuary, knowing he was unworthy to see the face of God.

Indeed, the scandal of Mary is that God has come far too close. It doesn’t seem appropriate. It doesn’t seem possible. So we pretend that Jesus is either less than God or less than truly human. To recognize that Mary is truly the mother of God is to explode our minds. Joseph, being holy, didn’t deny the truth – but he stepped away from it.

Thus the angel has to say, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” (And we must be told, as well, not to be afraid to welcome Mary into our homes.) Joseph is afraid – but the angel reminds him of his own messianic dignity.

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The angel tells Joseph of the role he must play: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph is the namer. He did not conceive the child, but he is to act as the father.

And he is to name Jesus savior – not destroyer. On the one hand, Jesus seems to upend Joseph’s plans. Like Abraham, Joseph must set off on a trajectory he never expected.

But in losing his life, Joseph rediscovers it. Naming Jesus points to how personal Joseph’s vocation will be. Children need parents – not just institutions – because they need to be known personally, to be known by name (not just by number). Joseph’s fatherly role is beautifully outlined in the naming of Jesus.

And Joseph is to be husband of Mary. We have a strange idea of ancient marriage, as if they didn’t even know their spouses. But though sin has always gotten in the way, marriage has always been about love and relationship. Children need marriage because they need to experience those personal relationships, to grow up in a context of inter-personal love.

The Bible portrays the first marriage, the marriage of Adam and Eve, as a delight, a discovery of another self and an end to the loneliness of being surrounded by mere animals. The Old Testament portrays marriage as the ultimate image of the love of God for his people, a love which is the opposite of betrayal and infidelity. I agree with the tradition that says the Song of Songs is about God and his people, not about human marriage – but regardless, it portrays marriage as profound being-in-love.

And when Jesus gives the grace to restore marriage – a grace given preeminently to his mother – it results in a love like his own. The only commandment to the Bride is to love.

Joseph wasn’t ignorant of Mary. She wasn’t some stranger that he suspected of adultery. She was his best friend. In the story of the Finding in the Temple, Mary can speak for Joseph’s heart: “your father and I have looked for you, greatly distressed” (Luke 2:48).

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Jesus is savior. He comes to restore, not to destroy. He calls Joseph, yes, to give up his life. Like any marriage, he must give himself unreservedly to his wife, to his child, and to God. In this marriage, he will have to give himself even more radically, as evidenced in his fear to go forward.

But the angel tells him not to be afraid. In giving his life, he finds it again, in laying it down he rediscovers all the riches of love: the love of husband and wife, the love of father and son, the love of friendship, the love of God.

Where is St. Joseph in your devotional life?

(For more meditations like the above, check out Fr. Mary-Dominique Philippe’s exquisite The Mystery of Joseph. (aff))

The Holy Family: Off-Balance

fra angelico nativityThe first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family.  As Jesus enters into a family, and we celebrate Christmas together as family, it seems appropriate to celebrate the beauty of family, the original vocation.  But all is not as expected.

The first reading, from Samuel, is the dedication of the child Samuel.  Hannah has prayed for a child – prayed for the gift of family.  It says she called him Samuel, “since she had asked the Lord for him” – implying that in Hebrew “Samuel” means something like, “I asked, God answered.”  But when God grants her prayer, she turns it upside down.

Our Gospel reading will have the Holy Family praying together.  “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.”  Family and faith in beautiful unity.

But that is not the case with Hannah.  “The next time her husband Elkanah was going up with the rest of his household to offer the customary sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vows, Hannah did not go.”  God grants her prayer for family, and she responds by not praying together with her husband.

And then she gives up her family: “Once the child is weaned, I will take him to appear before the Lord and to remain there forever; I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”  As a small boy she will send him away forever.  (A tradition says Mary’s parents did the same with her.)

This is a strange reading for a celebration of family.

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The key is in the Gospel, the Finding in the Temple, from Luke.  It begins with family togetherness.  But this time, it is not the mother, but the child – Jesus himself, God from God, Light from Light – who breaks the unity of the family: “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”

In their attempt to resolve the problem, we see the unity of the family: they “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances.”  Such a joyful procession of family and acquaintances, a village of human affection, going up to pray in Jerusalem.  And Jesus is not there.

Mary’s words when at last they find him, three days later, in the Temple, are a key to understanding St. Joseph’s place in the love of the Holy Family.  “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”  Mary speaks for the heart of Joseph.  She and Joseph share one anxiety for their child.  Heart speaks to heart; this is a marriage of profound friendship.

And a depth of family, too.  It is of course biologically untrue to call Joseph “your father.”  And yet in the love of the Holy Family – for example, in their loving anxiety for one another – Joseph is Jesus’s father.  These are not cold, formal relationship.  In Mary’s short words are a whole world of humanity, of family affection.

But Jesus is not there.  The anxiety of the parents for their child is tied to the words, “Why have you done this to us?” – forever the words of parents to children who do not respect their family ties.

And Jesus responds with disrespect: “Why were you looking for me?”  Why indeed!  “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Here is the heart of the matter: Jesus is Son of Man, but also Son of God.  He who takes flesh and blesses this world comes from outside of this world, and calls us beyond this world.

At the end of the story, “he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”  He entered back into human family, his self-emptying marked by his obedience to human parents.  But that obedience always teeters on the edge of a higher calling: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This is what “his mother kept . . . in her heart”: the tension of man and God, human family and divine vocation.

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For the Epistle, we had a choice between Colossians and First John – but the message of both is about the same.  On the one hand are the virtues of family love: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col. 3); “love one another just as he commanded us” (1 Jn 3).

But in both, that human love is rooted in the divine: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts . . . .  Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly. . . . Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In short, the only way to discover family is through holiness; we can only know the beauty of father, mother, child, and love if we keep foremost the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Our families can only thrive if we live a calling higher than family.

In what ways does your family need you to look beyond family, to your divine vocation?