LIKE WIFE, LIKE HUSBAND
By Br. John M. Samaha, S.M.
When asked by a questioner about the dignity of St. Joseph in Christian tradition, the late Father Francis L. Filas, S. J., the U.S.A.s leading authority on the subject, responded simply, "Like wife, like husband." The man closest to Jesus and Mary rightly deserves all honor and praise.
St. Joseph rarely enjoys great press. Usually he is forgotten, or at least standing obscurely in the background. His self-effacement seems to have influenced the scant attention given him by many Church teachers.
In a hymn honoring the Holy Eucharist, St. Thomas Aquinas describes the inadequacy of human language to express full appreciation of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Bernard and other great devotees of Mary voiced the same idea regarding our Blessed Mother. I think we may say the same about St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and the virgin father of Jesus.
Such appreciation unfolds slowly after much study and reflection. It does not become evident at once in a single glance. Even today many Catholics are inclined to tink that St. Joseph is a wonderful saint, but he was not the real father of Jesus, so we honor him as protector of Mary. With that passing comment, such persons promptly forget St. Joseph and relegate him to the background.
Actually this opinion was the common outlook in the first thirteen centuries of Christianity. Church history shows that St. Joseph was the victim of benign neglect in the lives of our early saints and Fathers and Doctors of the Church. St. Augustine and some other thinkers wrote of St. Joseph, but his mention is sparse. The tide turned slowly in the next five hundred years and we find simple beginnings of a solid devotion to St. Joseph.
The theology of his vocation, dignity, holiness, and intercession began to flower only in the Medieval times; and the seventeenth century was the golden age. The enthusiasm of St. Teresa of Avila for St. Joseph was remarkable, vividly expressed in her writings, and perpetuated in the twelve new convents given his name.
The ground swell of attention began with the Popes of the late nineteenth century. All the Popes of modern times, from Pope Pius IX until our present Holy Father, have issued substantial teaching about St. Joseph in their official documents. Since 1970, the Church officially gave impetus to this new trend when Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church. The next Pope, Leo XIII, set St. Joseph before us with a rank and place best described in his encyclical about St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries, 1889: "There can be no doubt that, more than any other person, he approached that super-eminent dignity by which the Mother of God was raised far above all created natures."
Such an exalted understanding and appreciation of St. Josephs dignity does not blossom all at once. Sustained study and meditation on his two-fold vocation are required. The extremes of too much or too little must be sedulously avoided. A typical reaction often encountered is the the Gospel says Joseph was a just man. What more can be said?
Plenty! In 1989, Pope John Paul II offered us a masterful explanation and reflection on the unique vocation of St. Joseph in Gods plan of salvation with Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer). This inspirational pastoral letter marking the centenary of Pope Leo XIIIs landmark encyclical, treats the person and mission of St. Joseph in the life of Christ and of the Church. It recalls what makes him special, not only for us personally, but for the universal Church.
Some muse the St. Josephs role is not treated in any detail in Holy Scripture. Nut neither is the vocation of Mother Mary. However, what little is said is highly significant. Theologians have reasoned to many of the functions and privileges granted Mary. The same process is followed in regard to Joseph. Once the divinity of Jesus and the divine virginal motherhood of Mary are firmly established in Catholic doctrine and in popular understanding, St. Joseph began to emerge without concern that his unique position as virgin father of Jesus and virginal husband of Mary would be misunderstood.
Absolutely certain is the fact that God did not choose an unworthy man to be the husband of Mary, who was to be the Virgin Mother of God. Even if St. Joseph had been merely Marys protector and not her husband, he would still have occupied a position far surpassing that of any other human being. But St. Joseph is her husband, related to the Mother of God in a marriage that was no less genuine because it was virginal. The marriage was brought into existence by God for the express purpose of serving the Incarnation, so that the Son of God might be received and reared within the holy conjugal union. Since, in all creation God could find none more worthy that Mary to be the Mother of Jesus, God could find none more worthy than Joseph to be the husband of Mary, and to be related to Jesus by the spiritual ties of a true fatherhood.
In the words of Leo XIII, "If God gave Joseph as a spouse ot the Virgin, He assuredly gave him not only as a companion in life, a witness of her virginity, and the guardian of her honor, but also as a sharer in her exalted dignity by reason of the conjugal tie itself."
On Calvary, when Jesus entrusted Mary to St. Johns care for the rest oof her earthly life, it was a sign of predilection. And we marveled at Johns holiness. Yet, what must have been the divine predilection when Joseph was chosen to be Marys husband for the many years of the Hidden Life of Jesus; to be one of the few persons entrusted with the secret of the Incarnation; to be the only man to receive the primacy of Marys affections for humans, and to return that love? Mary would not have been perfect in her wifely vocation if she loved any creature more than her husband. And for Joseph, the converse was true.
The similarity of holiness between Mary and Joseph must, of course, be kept in balance. Marys relationship to Jesus was far superior to Josephs But Pope Leo XIII reminded us that after Mary, no one was of greater dignity that Joseph, none possessed greater holiness than Joseph.
How shall we understand that Joseph is all that he is because of Mary? This means that Joseph was given his fatherly responsibility for Jesus because of his virginal marriage with Mary. Through this marriage, Joseph was not a mere fosterer, nor was he an adoptive father of Jesus. He was much more than that. Jesus was given Mary not simply because she was a single maiden, but because she was the virginal and true wife of St. Joseph. Jesus was given to the family of St. Joseph, and that was accomplished only through Mary. Even though St. Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, he was given the spiritual ties of fatherhood over a Son who was his own because he was the Son of Mary.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph comprise the Holy Family, the basic human unit of Gods strategy for the Incarnation and Redemption. They belong together in the History of Salvation. The three are inseparable, and should always be seen and understood together theologically, pastorally, and in church art. Their special identities in Gods plan are inter-related. To see them separately is regrettable and misleading.
Let us not forget St. Joseph. What St. Joseph did for Jesus and Mary, he will do for us personally and for the universal Church.
Like wife, like husband.
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