'Cum esset desponsata mater ejus Joseph.' Matt. i. 18.
It is said in Scripture,' Mary, of whom Jesus was bom f and St. John Damascene says that as these words convey the greatness of her dignity, so the ineffable title of Joseph is given in the words, he was 'the husband of Mary.' It has been already said that we do not know how soon the consciousness of his share in the design of redemption was added to the graces which he possessed under the old dispensation, or whether, as it was said of Mary, ' her foundations are upon the holy hills,' so in Joseph the graces of the coming Eedeemer already lighted up his soul with supernatural knowledge. It is useful to ourselves to consider Joseph only as he appeared to men, leading an ordinary life among persons of his own class, with only the aid of ordinary grace and conscience and the knowledge of the law of Moses, and to know that he acted up to the measure of the grace bestowed on him; for the Holy Scriptures tell us that he was a 'just' man, and in the inspired language that word contains all virtues. He used the reason and judgment which are given with the conscience to all men, and with the faith of his father Abraham he fulfilled the law of God as it was given by Moses, and in obedience to the law he was espoused to Mary. It is difficult to imagine that some of those whom we see and speak to may be saints in the sight of God; and it is yet more difficult to consider those whom we only know as saints, as having been men of like passions with ourselves. And yet we are taught by St. Francis to learn from our Lady's visit to St. Elizabeth, the duty of fulfilling the minor charities of society; and we may in the same way take example from this espousal of St. Joseph to fulfil all righteousness, whether we know or not the results. Thus Joseph acted. Mary was his kinswoman of the same royal descent, a virgin spotless as the spouse of the Canticles and fairer than the daughters of Abraham; for though her Immaculate Conception might not have been revealed, yet she was by the report of all as holy as she was noble; untrammelled as he was himself by the false riches and honours of the world. He fulfilled the duty of a just man, and espoused his next of kin without (so far as we are told) any supernatural direction, unless it were that secret voice of God which only the saints hear and understand. What a contrast to the ordinary conduct of men! There was no clashing of choice with judgment and duty, no doubts and wavering, none of those idle imaginations, those wild and dangerous desires of the romantic and the unknown, which so often disturb the sacred repose of marriage. She was to be his spouse; a treasure to be loved and valued, as a just man guards what God has confided to him.
It has been asked, if Joseph had not the same liberty as other Hebrews to marry into another tribe; and the question is answered by the commentary of Menochius. A woman who was an heiress was bound to marry one of her own family, and Mary was an only child. There were, however, others equally entitled to espouse her; and though the Evangelists are silent, yet tradition has been busy with the circumstances, and the mediaeval painters have embodied the legends. The history of the Blessed Virgin was painted by Giotto in a chapel at Padua, and it was one of his most perfect works. The pictures are said by judges to illustrate the history of the holy persons with a dignified and touching simplicity, and the painter has represented each with graceful beauty and pathos. We know not the authority on which the legend rests, but the painter represents St. Joachim as driven from the temple because he was childless, and all the subsequent events, from the miraculous birth of our Lady when Anna was already aged, to the presentation of our Lady in the Temple, who is represented as a beautiful girl of seven years old, timidly ascending the steps of the Temple, where the high-priest stands ready to consecrate her among the sacred virgins who await their companion.
Giotto in another scene represents the marriageable men of the house of David who sought Mary in marriage entering the Temple, each bringing a rod in his hand at the command of the high-priest, so that he whose rod should blossom might be the husband of Mary. The rod of Joseph bore leaves and flowers, and hence he is represented as holding a lily. In another picture is the blessing of the rods; and the whole has a supernatural import, and tends to express the belief that all was done by divine inspiration. Other pictures represent the espousals and the bridal procession. The figures of the Blessed Virgin and the other maidens are inexpressibly beautiful. She is represented as about the age of fourteen, dark, but comely, like the Jewish maidens. Travellers say that there is a relic at the Duomo of Perugia which is called 'il sant Anello,' and it is believed to be the ring with which St. Joseph espoused our Lady. It is described as a hoop of opal only, in thickness half an inch. The relic was brought in the ninth century from the Holy Land by a Jew, together with the authentication, and was placed in a shrine of glass and gold made by Eosetti, pupil to Perugino. This is enclosed in a wooden box fastened by fourteen locks, the keys of which are kept by fourteen different people. It is covered by crimson curtains, and drawn up by pulleys to the ceiling of the chapel, and let down once a year for the veneration of the faithful.
It may gratify our natural curiosity to know the ceremonies of espousals among the Hebrews; but we leave this to the antiquarian, and go on to the next circumstance recorded of Joseph in the Holy Scriptures— the discovery which troubled his peace and perplexed his judgment.
The Gospel appointed by the Church for the Mass of the Festival of St. Joseph is Matt. i. 18-25. The evangelist breaks off the genealogy by the history of the miraculous birth of Christ. It was in doubt and sorrow that the mighty revelation was received by Joseph. It was complete, and every word told him of things which kings and prophets had in vain desired to see. 'Joseph, fili David, noli timere... quod enim in ea natum est de Spiritu sancto est. Pariet filium: et vocabis nomen ejus Jesum.' It was the first time the Holy Name had been spoken on earth.
The history is that of a trial the most severe which could happen to a just man, and yet the whole tone of the passages selected is that of triumphant joy: 'Justus ut palma florebit; sicut cedrus Libani multiplicabitur; plantatus in domo Domini in atriis domus Dei nostri.'
The lesson is the praises of Moses applied to him (Ecclus. xlv. 1-8): 'Dilectus Deo et hominibus;' and the gradual is,' Praevenisti eum in benedictionibus dulcedinis... vitam petiit a te, et tribuisti ei longitudinem dierum in sseculum sseculi.'
Thus the Church looks on trial and sorrow even as the pains spoken of by our Lord, which will not afterwards be remembered for the greatness of the joy. It is in the trials which befell St. Joseph that we feel the great difficulty in writing about his life. It is indeed so great, that it appears at times insurmountable; so that the pen drops from the hand in discouragement. We do not know how far St. Joseph was raised by grace above human imperfection, nor do we know the extent of supernatural knowledge that he possessed. We know that his position as guardian of our Lord brought him so near to Him and to the Blessed Virgin, that all which is characteristic in other saints is obscured by excess of light. We know not therefore how much or what he suffered in the tribulations which have raised him to such glory. Other saints suffered from temptations, as St. Paul, who describes himself to the Corinthians (1 ii. 3) as being with them in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. The angel too bade Joseph fear not to take Mary his spouse; and Mary afterwards said that Joseph and herself had sought Him sorrowing. It seems as if knowledge was withheld, that faith might earn its reward; and St. Paul explains at length the imperfections of this present state: 'We know in part, and we prophesy in part' (1 Cor. xiii. 9). Let us therefore consider the trial in itself, and in the way it would be received by ordinary good men.
'Joseph vir ejus, cum esset Justus, voluit occulte dimittere earn.' Matt. i. 18.
It is a necessary truth that all who belong to Christ must suffer tribulation; for His kingdom is not of this world, and He came not to give earthly peace, but to destroy it, while He gave instead His own peace, and that not as the world giveth. He came to destroy His first creation, and to make all things new. If there is anything in human life more free than others from the consequences of the Fall, it is the virtuous peace of the young and innocent; yet this must be exchanged for something better. Joseph had an office and a part to bear in the great work of repairing the unutterable evil of sin by suffering, and it was in his office as guardian of his betrothed that his first trial came. The uniformity of his life was broken by a doubt, which would in any one less just awaken the passions of love and jealousy; and St. Francis de Sales (Conf. 50) quotes the words of the spouse in the Canticles: 'Love is strong as death, and jealousy is hard as hell.' He was placed in a dilemma more harassing than the imagination of man could invent. He knew the law as given by God to Moses, and in his meditations he had leamt to love it above all that was dearest to him, above all that was dearer to him than his life. He was accustomed to shrink from no sacrifice which it imposed, nor to omit any duty which it prescribed; and now he was placed in circumstances trying beyond all which can be conceived, he only deliberated that he might discover the path of duty. The letter of the law was death, and he who was suffering the loss of all he held most dear must be her accuser; and, as St. Bernard says, another overwhelming thought came to increase his perplexity beyond measure. Was not this the Virgin foretold by the prophets who was to bring forth the Messias, and could he dare to remain in her company? How could he approach so great a mystery 1 As St. Elizabeth said, 'What am I, that the Mother of my lord should come to me1?' or St. Peter, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord.' Had he mistaken the will of God, and rashly and blindly entered a state for which he was so unfit 1 If Elizabeth feared to receive the Mother of our Lord, how could he receive under his roof the God of glory?
The conduct of Joseph, even if he were spared the agonies of ignorance as to the spiritual nature of his trial, is a model for all who are tried by doubts and perplexities. In an instant of time his prospects of earthly happiness were destroyed, and he awoke from his dream of prosperity to action. Yet he deliberated, for he felt the responsibility of action; and 'he thought of these things,' he deliberated, till he could obtain a right decision. She whom he loved above all things except God depended on him, as it seemed, for her life and reputation. The whole future hung on one action. Should he fulfil the law in its severity, without regard to circumstances or persons? was a question which would have perplexed the wisdom of Solomon. He deliberated, but without perturbation. His judgment was clear, his conscience upright, his gentleness and innocence were unconscious of a stain. He was calm, and none but those who are at rest can estimate the importance of action. The raising a hand or turning an eye has an object, an intention, and a result. No human mind can count its cost, or bear the calculation of its consequences. Some, have said that a sound once uttered goes on for ever; some, that all which was ever done exists for ever; and all know that each event is one link in a chain which stretches through the past and future to eternity.
The state of Joseph is a model to all who desire to live godly. They are in a dilemma—not only suffering, but sin besets them, and they fear to do wrong, yet know not what is right: then, like the stormtossed mariners when human skill fails, they cry unto God in their distress, 'and straight they are at the harbour where they would be.' And so it was with Joseph: human reason and judgment had done their utmost, and he resigned himself to God. He must have done so, for he slept. With a pure intention and an upright heart he was faithful to God and to the law, and was at rest. It was a mystical sleep, and God sent an angel to dispel his ignorance and doubt. 'Fear not,' was the blessed message of peace, dispelling the only real fear, that of displeasing God. God restores light and joy to his soul in the midst of external difficulties. So God by His grace gives peace in the very centre of the soul of His servants when temptation and anguish overwhelm them; and it is in this sleep of the faculties, this abandonment to God, that the angel of God was sent to direct St. Joseph.
When the angel of the Lord first spoke to Joseph, he called him son of David; and this word implied the fulfilment of the prophecy. All men were waiting, like Simeon, for the salvation of Israel; all women, like Anna, hoped to behold Him; but Joseph had an hereditary interest in the promise, for he was of the royal house of David, whose inheritance was that promise which rejoiced the heart of Abraham when he desired to see the day of Christ; and he saw it, and was glad. But we are not told that Joseph understood from these words that the time for the fulfilment was come, that the prophecies were all fulfilled, and the moment on which the past and future hung was this in which he was called by the angel 'son of David.'
'Exsurgens Joseph a somno fecit sicut praecepit ei angelus Domini.' Joseph had slept the sleep of faith. If he had been perturbed by human passions or counsels, perhaps the angel would not have been sent to him; perhaps he might not have been able to receive the revelation. But what a light to burst upon the dazzled vision of a mortal man! The secret hidden since the world began is revealed to him, the secret of the Incarnation. He was to be the guardian, not only of the Mother of God, but of the Son of God; and this most sacred and most secret mystery, says St. Bernard, was to be committed to his keeping. He was to conceal it under the veil of marriage, not only from the world, but, according to St. Jerome, from the devil. Perhaps he knew the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, and the wonderful consequences which result from it: the perfection of the sacrifice as being pure from sin, the perfect propitiation for sin. That holy doctrine, which the lips fear to utter, and the heart receives in awe and silence; that article of the faith which the Church held in silence till it was pronounced in these last days by the Pope, whose prophetic motto is, 'Crux ac cruce,' Joseph must have known; for Isaiah had said that Christ should be born of a Virgin, of whom it had been said in the Canticles that her purity should be like a sealed fountain. He knew, and it was said of him, 'Depositum custodit;' he kept his trust. He must conceal these mysteries from all but the Blessed Virgin, and for life. He might wonder with her, but he was silent, and concealed what St. Thomas called 'miraculum miraculorum / and the secret was to be kept till the hour was come, and he did not live to see that hour. Was ever patience so heroic? It is hard to conceal the smallest favour, or grace, or gift, or virtue; the very saints have been tempted to lose their consolations by revealing them; but who ever like Joseph understood the mysteries of God 1 His was more than faith; it was knowledge. We know in part .' but he even while on earth knew more. He knew, and spoke not, though all who saw him scorned him as the carpenter of Nazareth, who knew not even letters. Nay, Holy Scripture names him not, except in the history of others greater than himself. Perhaps he did not even know himself the greatness of his glory.
We scarcely venture to think what must have been the reflections of Joseph on what had passed. We read of saints, and even of ordinary persons, who in a moment of grace have seen before them the whole mystery of Christian faith. But what had he beheld! and with so much grace, what mysteries could he comprehend, of which other souls are unconscious! He, whose office transcended that of the angels, could rise above them to a height inferior only to that attained by the Mother of God. He knew that mystery of redemption, revealed to Adam when contrition had opened the gate to pardon; that mystery which Abraham believed, and won by faith its promise; that mystery which Moses and the people saw prefigured in the desert. He knew more than the prophets; what they saw under a veil, he saw revealed. The Redeemer is come, He is beneath his roof; He will soon call him father. The Virgin, who has conceived Him, calls Joseph by the name of husband. He possesses that which the Fathers speak of, that mystical date dropped by the divine dove in the sealed garden: the palm which sprang from it was his property by all laws, both human and divine. What must have been his first interview with Mary after this great revelation! with what loving awe must he have beheld her, and what adoration must he have offered to the Word made flesh! There is a veil on these wonderful moments, but God loves to see His servants try to raise it. And then the months of contemplation before the Nativity the joy of what the prophet calls 'the prisoner of hope'! With what ecstasy must Joseph have pursued his labours, conscious that his God was near! With what raptures must he have communicated with Him; and when he slept, it was in the thought that the Incarnate Lord was there. When Mary spoke, the words broke the silence of unceasing prayer, and shed light and fervour into Joseph's soul, and he could contemplate always her who has been described as 'clothed with the sun.' He could contemplate what the saints only can speak of, though it is allowed to each, according to their capacity, to gaze and feed on it—that mystery of mercy, the Incarnation, which was accomplished for each individual. A saint said, when told of any new wonder of God's mercy, 'Nothing can surprise me; one only thing is wonderful, the Incarnation.' We are told that Mary, after she had received the Annunciation, went with haste to visit Elizabeth; but we know not whether Joseph was present at the salutation; whether he guarded her in the hill country of Judea; or whether he remained in desolation and solitude such as none ever had, for none ever had received such consolation. Mary and Elizabeth, Zachariah and Joseph, were the only souls belonging to the new dispensation; yet the Scriptures are silent.