Rethinking St. Joseph
‘The Dream of St. Joseph’ by Luca Giordano, c. 1700. Oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The gospel on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before Christmas, presents Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth. In Luke’s gospel, we see Mary’s perspective—the angel Gabriel’s message and her fiat. In Matthew’s account, we get Joseph’s viewpoint, including insight on his agonizing decision…what to do about the untimely pregnancy of his betrothed, Mary. There’s an explanation for Joseph’s actions I’ve never fully bought. It seemed too pious. However, in reading it for this article, I noticed something new that changed my mind. So, in this article, I’ll explain why I’ve been wrong about Joseph for a long time.
Here is the passage, “When his [Jesus’] 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” (Matthew 1:18-19). Here’s how I always thought about it. At some point it came to light Mary was pregnant (obviously), and Joseph had to follow the Law, so he decided to divorce her. However, Mary’s punishment would be death. So, because Joseph was kind, he decided to divorce in secret so no one would find out. He was a righteous man, so he couldn’t marry her. There was too much scandal. But he didn’t want her dead. Then, the angel came to him in a dream and sorted everything out.
The Church doesn’t officially say how we should read this passage. However, three theories have surfaced over the centuries as the most plausible explanations. The faithful are free to choose whichever sounds best. The first is the Suspicion Theory: Joseph suspects Mary of adultery and plans to divorce her but the angel intervenes. Joseph remains righteous because he follows the Law and refuses any immorality. St. Justin Martyr, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine held that one.
The second is the Perplexity Theory: Mary’s pregnant so the only option is divorce. But even though he can’t explain it, Joseph also can’t believe Mary was unfaithful. She must be innocent and shouldn’t be killed but, at the same time he can’t understand it. He’s perplexed. So, he decides not to expose her. Joseph remains righteous here because he lives by the Law but still gives Mary the benefit of the doubt and spares her life. St. Jerome went by that theory.
Most people think along the lines of these two theories. But there’s a problem. Being a righteous man, Joseph would have to turn Mary in if he believed she was an adulterer…and how could she be anything else? That was the Law and if you’re righteous, you follow the Law. How could he just look the other way?
Now there’s a third theory, the Reverence Theory. This is the one I thought least plausible. Here Joseph understands the miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy from the start and feels unworthy to be with her. The quiet divorce safeguards her secret. But the angel reveals that he’s a central part of this plan, as well. So, he gets married. Joseph remains righteous because of his great reverence for God, his humility, and his obedience in the face of difficulties. St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas held this view. This always seemed too pious. It gave too much to Joseph. How would he know? However, I’m rethinking that position.
Here’s what changed my mind. The Scripture says Mary “was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit (my emphasis added).” It doesn’t just say she was just found with child…and that’s all. It says she was “found with child” and that child came from “the Holy Spirit.” So, Joseph does know! And really, is it all that impossible to believe given all the other miracles in this passage? Perhaps the Holy Spirit gave him the grace to believe Mary’s explanation. He knew, and he wondered how could an ordinary man like himself have a part in so extra-ordinary an event? He needed an angel to reveal the true nature of God’s wish for him. Once he got that piece, he was good to go.
This solves the dilemma I spoke of earlier—how could a righteous man go against the Law and not expose Mary? It’s because he’s righteous and in tune with the Holy Spirit that he realizes Mary is telling the truth! The child is miraculously from God and she is without blame. In fact, she’s too without blame. He feels completely out of his league and tries to excuse himself.
I think we often overlook the example of St. Joseph as protector, provider, and guide to Jesus. Joseph is most like us. A simple, ordinary man striving for faithfulness to God’s call. However, he did this in an extraordinary way. And, for he’s been venerated and given a special place in the Church.
Pope John Paul II’s Guardian of the Redeemer portrays the sterling virtue and high sanctity of Joseph. It’s a portrait I haven’t always appreciated…but it’s growing on me. The Pope Saint says, “St Joseph is the model of those humble ones that Christianity raises up to great destinies…he is the proof that in order to be a good and genuine follower of Christ, there is no need to do great things it is enough to have the common, simple and human virtues…”
May we all look to St. Joseph to teach us fidelity to Christ’s mission of salvation, a mission in which each of us must play a part, even though we feel unworthy and it seems impossible. God has a plan for you. Like St. Joseph, you can see it through with his grace.
Marc Cardaronella is the Director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation.