As it is the year of St. Joseph, we are all trying to get to know this great self-effacing saint better. But we modern Catholics are very susceptible to projecting our own conflicts and ambivalences onto the saints. Certainly, it’s a great spiritual exercise to place ourselves in the scenes of the Gospels, and ask ourselves, “What would I do if I were there? How would I have felt? How would I have reacted?” Yet we must be careful not to measure the saints, and particularly Our Lady and Jesus, by our own smallness.
Silent St. Joseph especially poses this temptation to us. We read in Matthew 1:18-20,
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.
This verse always evoked for me a picture of heartbroken Joseph, discovering that his betrothed had been unfaithful, but still too kind to expose her, quietly sending her away to live out her shame in secret.
Yet this is not how the text was read for many centuries.
St. Thomas explains in his Sentences Commentary (IV. D. 30, Q. 2, A. 2, ad 5),
Joseph did not wish to send Mary away so that he could take another wife, or on account of any suspicion, but because he feared to cohabit with such holiness out of reverence; which is why it was said to him, Do not fear to take Mary as your wife (Matt 1:20).
This is a very different interpretation of the events in Matthew 1, but it is an interpretation that seemed evident to the fathers and doctors in the first two thirds of the Church’s history—saints and scholars who lived closer to the time and mindset of the Gospels.
St. Thomas references St. Jerome as support when he repeats his explanation:
it is not probable that Joseph would dare to approach the womb that he knew was a temple of God, as Jerome says (In IV Sent., D. 30, Q. 2, A. 3, sc).
St. Jerome was making the case for Mary’s perpetual virginity in his book Against Helvidius, but both saints base their arguments on Joseph’s awe and reverence before the woman who had become the Theotokos.
While we take as our point of departure our own imagined response to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, St. Jerome and St. Thomas inhabit the mindset of a 1st-century Jew. The Jews of Joseph’s time were so profoundly imbued with the sense of God’s unapproachable holiness that they would not even say his name. No one could enter the Holy of Holies except one high priest, once per year. They all knew the story of Uzzah, at the time of King David, who was struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant (to keep it from falling!). Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant; would Joseph have dared to touch her?
St. Thomas picks out other clues from this text to show that Joseph had a greater understanding of this extraordinary event than I ever would have thought. He points out that divorcing one’s spouse (even quietly) was not what the Law prescribed for an unfaithful bride. Stoning was. Yet the one critical piece of information that the Gospels give us about Joseph was that “he was a just man.” Joseph was an observer of the Law, through and through. He would not have disregarded the Law in Mary’s case; his intention to “send her away quietly” sprang from an awareness of his own unworthiness.
We children of the new dispensation bask in the familiarity of the Incarnation, and it is good that we should enjoy this abundant inheritance that Christ has won for us. Jesus has revealed the face of God to us and placed his name in our mouths. Yet we, who can take God into our hands quite literally on a daily basis, may easily forget to cultivate real awe before the untouchable, unapproachable I AM. St. Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s holiness at the dawn of the New Covenant reminds us of the heights that lowered themselves to make our salvation possible. St. Thomas, St. Jerome, and the other saints teach us that these heights can be attained by us–not by dragging the saints down to our own emotional state but by striving to learn the pathways of holiness from them.
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On this anniversary day of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas, we would like to announce a partnership with New City Press that will enable the Aquinas Institute to begin publishing a bilingual edition of the works of St. Augustine. New City Press has been translating and publishing the works of St. Augustine for the last 35 years, and their translations have become the new standard in the English-speaking world. The Aquinas Institute will begin using these translations to build an online database, and to publish bilingual editions similar to those we offer of St. Thomas Aquinas. The beginning of our online site is available to the public at https://augustinus.cc. We will be adding more texts and translations as the project progresses, and our aim is to bring out the first volume, containing the Confessions, within the next year. Happy feast day!