HIDDEN LIFE OF ST. JOSEPH.
'Et mater ejus conservabat omnia verba bsec in oorde sue.'
It is in the heart that mysteries are received and understood; the lips may speak, and the ear may hear, but the heart alone can understand by time and meditation. But did not Joseph consider? It is of Mary only that the Scriptures were to speak. He knew from the first that Jesus was the Christ; but this was far from enough. He had to learn His office and His Father's work, and he was astonished at the consequences of what he believed; and this is the characteristic of His teaching—at first a new and startling revelation, which, like the seed, grows and brings forth fruit according to the measures and weights of the heavenly balances. For eighteen years that growth went on, and all that time 'Jesus proficiebat sapientia et retate et gratia apud Deum et homines.' These words must be meditated by each; none can realise them for another. We are told that they believed His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.
Our Lord taught Mary and Joseph, not by words, but by deeds. As Man, He increased in all perfection of mind and body, and His graces found favour with God, and even with man. Joseph beheld His immaculate innocence, His charity, His humility, and above all, His obedience.
'Nonne hie est f aber, filius Marine V Mark vi. 3.
We learn from other passages of the Evangelists several particulars of the life of Christ. He worked in the shop of Joseph; for people said when He began to preach, 'Is not this the carpenter V and in the first ages of the Church there was a tradition of the ploughs which Jesus made. He received no human learning, for when He began to preach in the synagogue of Nazareth—'Ubi erat nutiitus, et intravit secundum consuetudinem suani diei sabbate in synagogam et surrexit legere'—they said, ' How came this Man by all these things? How could He learn letters 1 Was not this the Son of Mary, the brother—that is, the cousin-german—of James, and Joseph, and John, and Simeon; and are not His sisters also with us V And they were right. Joseph could not teach our Lord His unanswerable reasoning and persuasive preaching; these were the emanations from the divine wisdom which dwelt within that second Adam of our nature.
The prophet foretold that He should be modest and gentle, not letting His voice be heard, not contending, or crying out in the streets, subject to His parents, meek and humble, and the joy of all who knew Him; so that St. Ephrem said. ' His companions used to say, "Let us go to Sweetness."' What must have been the gentleness of Joseph in such an atmosphere of divine love 1 for Jesus was in the midst of the Holy Family, illuminating each member as from a sun of light and heat, while He Himself, who is Light, was veiled by His charity.
'Jesus proficiebat sapientia et astute'
It is said of the Holy Child, after He was brought back from Egypt to Nazareth, Puer erescebat; and after His return from the Temple, Puer proficiebat. As a child, He was strengthened—' confortebatur'—until the age when His human nature made progress by that correspondence with the Will of God which united His Soul with His divinity. But this is a mystery too deep for contemplation. We only know that the human nature of our Lord was capable of increase as well as of suffering and death; but in Him was from the first the fulness of grace, and as Bossuet says, 'the increase was not in the possession of grace and of wisdom, but in His manifestation of them;' as the Church manifests the faith intrusted to her at the first by successive declarations of its mysteries, according as mankind required a fuller teaching. His human nature passed through all the stages of life, that He might teach the virtues of all conditions.
It is a great revelation that 'Puer proficiebat.' Jesus, full of divine perfection, improved the human nature He had taken by developing as well as manifesting its faculties. As that sinless body had grown towards the fulness of manly excellence, so had that perfect soul, finer and purer than that of Adam when created in the image of God, attained by degrees its force and its extent. And Joseph must have watched with loving awe that sanctity increasing more and more unto the perfect day, which men learn slowly—' here a little, and there a little.'
'Et gratia apudDeum et homines,'—' In favour with God and men.' Imb. ii. 52.
It seems as if the sacred historian gave in these few words a description of the house at Nazareth to be the model of all Christian families. We see the ineffable purity of Mary's life detached from the world and from all that belongs to it. We see the Holy Child increasing like the souls who were hereafter to be born of Him, of whom the Psalmist said, 'I will appear before Thy sight in justice: I shall be satisfied when Thy glory shall appear.' 'Et homines.' The first stages of grace are lovely even to the natural feelings of man. The charity which unites the soul to God unites it also to all His creatures. The joy of her espousal is fresh; there has been yet no mixture of what belongs to earth, and there are some, even in this rough world, who preserve their baptismal innocence, or at least the sweetness and the perfume of its grace. There is a panoply around them like the legendary charm which made the champions of the cross invulnerable, and even the shafts of slander touch them not. The Fall has not so entirely destroyed the image in which man was made. There is a natural admiration of what is good, until it interferes with the selfish principles, and the worst and fiercest natures have seldom lost the tenderness with which it is natural to look at a child, or even on an innocent and gentle person, until sin has ranged them among the enemies of God and all that is good. If Jesus found favour among men, what must He have appeared to Joseph? We can only measure great things by small.
The Blessed Virgin was the Tabernacle of the most Holy, and no shadow of sin could touch her or obscure the reflection of His brightness. Joseph was the mysterious cloud which veiled from profane eyes the mystery of the Incarnation. St. Francis says our Lady belonged to him; he was like the male palm-tree, which bears no fruit, yet must overshadow the fruit of the female palm, and she was planted near him like the spouse in the Canticles. 'Sicut palma exultata sum in Cades.' The palm-tree is the type of Judaea, even on the coin of Vespasian, in which a disconsolate woman sits under a palm-tree. The Psalmist (xcii. 12) says the righteous is like the palm-tree planted beside the waters, as they are planted on the banks of Jordan and nourished by its sacred waters, so that Jericho was called the city of palms. The palm was especially the type of our Lady. Joseph was a saint before his espousal, much more, says St. Alphonso, when he was the spouse of her who was full of grace and whose office is to dispense grace; and St. Francis compares his growth in perfection to the mirror which reflects not the sun itself, but the reflection of the sun on that most pure mirror our Lady, on whom the rays of glory proceeding from the Son of God fell with full radiance and reverberated on St. Joseph.
If a life spent with Mary would sanctify Joseph, what must have been the heavenly influences of the presence of our Lord! Volumes have been written on visits to the Blessed Sacrament; but Joseph beheld Jesus. He spoke to Him and heard His answers. Others may hear His inspirations with the interior ear, but Joseph heard with his bodily ears His answers to his questions. His eyes are, as the Scriptures express it, the light of His countenance, and were turned on Joseph. The whole being of Joseph absorbed into itself the visible and tangible Presence which, when perceived by faith only, has power to raise the saints into ecstasy. How do we behave in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament? and what must have been the life of Joseph while he spoke and moved and laboured, while he ate and drank and slept, in the visible presence of God 1 Those who attend on kings know the personal influence of a mere earthly sovereign, and what must have been that Presence which found favour with God and man. Yet let us remember that when the woman cried out in rapture, 'Blessed is the womb that bare Thee,' our Lord replied that those are more blessed who hear the Word of God, and keep it; and that He said to St. Thomas, 'Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.'
The external actions of St. Joseph were the same before and after the angel's revelations. He had still to labour, and now he must labour for a family; but what a family! It is said by a Lapide that his actions, in contributing to the support of Christ, related to the order of hypostatic union, and were therefore inconceivably superior to any others. If the kingdom of Heaven will be the reward of those who serve Christ in the person of the poor, what will He give to him to whom He can say literally, I was hungry, and you gave Me meat!
'Et erat subditua illis.'
St. Bernard says that Joseph was the 'fidelis servus et prudens quern constituit Dominus sua matris solatium.' Joseph worked at his trade in his own cottage. Mary performed the duties of the house, and aided Joseph. Jesus worked with him, swept the shop, sold the work, and carried the tools. He obeyed His Mother and His father also. What an intercourse between the Mother and Son! She full of grace, the only one, the chosen one of God, and He God Himself. She commanded, and He obeyed. She adored His person while she fulfilled her office, and Joseph filled his; for he held an office the most tremendous ever trusted to man. But weak and ignorant rulers often command saints. He knew what his office was, and had fortitude to perform it. It would be an error to think that the life of St. Joseph had no trials. If there is one suffering greater than another to those in command, it is to feel inferior to those who obey them. Elizabeth felt shame that the Mother of her Lord should visit her; and St. John cried out, 'Comest Thou to me!' St. Peter refused when Christ would wash his feet. Yet Joseph commanded Jesus! St. Alphonso says, if it was wonderful to see Joshua command the sun to stand still, and the sun obey the voice of a man, what was it for Joseph to command the Son of God? It was revealed to St. Bridget, that when St. Joseph said, Do this or that, He heeded it immediately; and Gerson says that He prepared the meals, and washed the vessels, and carried water from the spring, and washed the house. Overbeck has represented our Lord in one of his pictures as sweeping the chips of wood into the form of a cross.
We do not hear of Joseph pleading his unworthiness to fill his office of command, and our Lady immediately said, 'Ecce ancilla Domine!' St. John the Baptist pleaded, but yielded. This is true humility. Not only the sense of unworthiness, but the confidence in God, are to make us what He wills. Sarah was reproved for laughing, and Ahab for refusing to ask a sign, as though he mistrusted the power of God to use so vile an instrument as himself. But it is sometimes said of Joseph that he did as he was commanded; sometimes only the fact is recorded, leaving his acquiescence to be understood. Subditus Mis; and this may be said of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. He is with us in the Tabernacle, or He is raised up on the altar. He is exposed, that He may listen to our wants and give us Benediction; and what is He when He enters within us by Holy Communion 1 "We almost shrink with St. Peter to think of ourselves when we are made one with Him; that He is in a manner subditus!
And this is the last that is told us of St. Joseph. His life at Nazareth was thenceforth hidden. It was so obscure, that only his poor fellow-villagers knew of his existence; and this oblivion appears to the worldly not only death, but the silence of the tomb. The heathens thought that a name and the memory of past deeds was a sort of immortality, so that obscurity was to them a burying alive in the midst of living men. And there is in. man an ardour for action, which is the life of the natural man; it is the spring which moves the complicated machinery of mind; and there is an instinct, strongest in the noblest men, to use their strength in doing or in suffering. And men of weaker minds rush about the world from excitement, without an object, yet they can only be in one place at a time, and movement gives succession, not possession. They see and hear only a certain amount; they live in plenty, and consume only the daily bread. Even in spiritual things men misuse their activity; they seek the Lord at a distance, while they fly from Him in the midst of them and within them.
This hidden life, says Bossuet, is thought death by men, and they dread it; life, they say, is action, and he who does not act ceases to live. But there is an interior action, though the world knows it not, nor believes that there is action unless the body moves. Bossuet says that the obscurity in which our Lord passed thirty years was in order to destroy the pride of man. He can do nothing. God does all. Thus it is that the bidden life of St. Joseph is opposed to the pride of the world. Men only observe actions; the hidden life is beyond their reach, like death. He says again, the Cross is not enough even to conquer pride, but the hidden life destroys it. Christ Himself is still hidden in our tabernacles, and our lives are hid with Christ in God. We too are hidden. But when He appears, we shall appear with Him in glory, and know even as we are known.
The love of a hidden life and death will only come by degrees, as souls begin to discover that it is not really an obscure life and an ignoble death. These are views of faith which are learnt more by the study of the contrary than by a bare assertion that a hidden life is amiable. It is not amiable, unless we see that what appears bidden and useless is really glorious, active, and useful; and when we learn to apply this truth to life, it is still easier to apply it to death, which is only the door to life, the raising of the veil, the beginning of reality, the attainment of that for which we live. We live for God and for our sanctification; we die to arrive at God and eternal beatitude. And this led to the distinction of vocations; to the active and the contemplative life. It is not true that material change alone is action, and that the repose of the body is inaction. St. Gregory from his sick bed ruled the world; and so the soul, when all the avenues of sense are closed, may rise to heaven, and range in thought through, creation. The memory and intellect cannot be bounded by material things.
There are two vocations of God to man, the contemplative and the active, the life of Mary or of Martha. Thus, says Bossuet, there was one vocation to Joseph aud one to the Apostles; they were a light to reveal, and Joseph was a veil to conceal, Him who was the Saviour of souls, and her who was the Immaculate Virgin full of grace. Joseph was a hidden saint, and fulfilled his vocation.
Men live in the past and future; the realisation of the present ought to be the perfection of sanctity. Even the philosopher said, 'Age quod ages;' and no one can calculate the value of the least action done by Joseph, as he did it, and for whom; and when we are told that one action of our Blessed Lady exceeded in perfection those of all the angels and saints, we may consider the hidden life of Joseph as entirely beyond our comprehension. He knew the mystery of Christ, he knew of Mary, and he told nothing of them, nor of himself. Joseph was the veil which hid the mystery of the Immaculate Conception and of the Incarnation: his was greatness without fame, happiness without display, glory without praise. 'Gloria mea testimonium conscientise' (1 Cor.). When the Lord sought for Himself a man according to His own heart (1 Kings xiii. 14), and Samuel chose a king among the sons of Jesse, David was unknown even in his own family. The prophet passed by the strong, the comely, and the brave, and chose the gentle shepherd of Israel. Such was Joseph, the son of David. He was called to fill the highest office ever intrusted to man; not to be the leader of God's chosen people, but that of guardian or steward of the mysteries of God; and his graces were simplicity and detachment, and love of hidden life. The virtues which men esteem are those which are active and relate to man, and they neither seek nor understand the hidden virtues, where all that passes is between man and God; and yet in them the chief good is found. Joseph bore no office in the sight of men, but he was ' glorious in the secret devotion to God, all hidden in the privacy of his conscience.' Joseph was just, and justice or righteousness is between man and God alone—God and man Alone—and none can judge of it but God: it is a mystery profaned by revealing it to any who know not its secret. Our Lord bade us shut the door when we pray, that our prayer may be in secret; and the Psalmist prayed that he might abide under the shadow of His wings.
And this was Joseph's life, without event or change even to the last; a living death as regards the world, but life in the sight of God. He lived with Christ and Mary; he worked, he moved, he spoke all day and every day in His sight; his one thought was of Him. We are often told that sanctity consists not in doing great things, but in doing little things perfectly. We know that each action must have a right intention, and be faithfully performed for the love of God and man, and that its sole merit consists in this obedience. Men value actions by another standard, that of their utility. This leaves out every other qualification but that of interest. The victories of a conqueror, or the politics of a statesman, are as nothing in the sight of God if they are deficient in obedience; and the most ordinary acts of Joseph surpassed them all. It was no routine of trifles when he rose up to work, to eat with his family, to converse with them, and rest with them; for who were the persons? Christ and Mary. He was familiar with the presence of Jesus; he comes and goes, he hears and knows the mind of Jesus. All this is the material form of all spiritual life, and these things are not trifles.
Many, like the rich man, ask 'what they shall do to inherit eternal life;' but all are not told like him to sell their possessions. Joseph attained the height of sanctity in the most ordinary external circumstances. St. John Baptist was at that very time living in the desert. Born as he was, according to promise, not to nature, cleansed from sin in his mother's womb by the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, he was inspired, when he was seven years old, to leave his father's house and remain in the desert mountains of Judea, eating the honey which the wild bees lay up in the rocks, and dwelling in a cave on the side of a mountain under a wood of locust trees, whose fruit was his food, though the olives grew in the valley below, and the vines grew on the surrounding hills. He drank of the spring which flows from the rocks, and travellers yet see the ledge of stone on which he slept. There he dwelt alone in the sight of God and angels till he was inspired to leave the woody valley and the lofty mountain for the wilderness of Jordan, not near the palmtrees and the balsam of Jericho, but a sandy plain, where only willows and barren tamarisks shade the sacred waters. There, girt with a camel's skin, dwelt the first of ascetics and of hermits. He preached repentance, and all Jerusalem came out to hear him. It was like the preaching of Jonah at Ninive; and our Lord afterwards said of him that 'there was none greater than him among those born of women.'
It was at that very time that Joseph was leading a secular life in the greatest obscurity as a carpenter in the remote village of Nazareth. He only left it to make a yearly visit to Jerusalem. He had no work but his trade, and few knew him; yet he was guided in this ordinary life by visions of angels, and he filled the duties of his office as a just man.
Bossuet says of our Lord Himself, 'Look at the Divine Carpenter; He handles the saw and the plane; His tender hands are hardened with rough tools; He does not hold the "pencil of a painter nor the pen of a writer;" He works with His hands the will of God, and while all Jerusalem came out to hear the preaching of John, He whose shoe he was unworthy to lift was in His workshop in His native town, labouring for the support of His Mother.' And all this may be said in a degree of Joseph, who not only did this himself, but commanded his Lord to do so also.