In all of the gospel story Joseph does not say one word yet his actions speak volumes. In fact, Joseph is not mentioned at all in the Gospels of Mark and John and just in passing in the Gospel of Luke. It is in Matthew’s gospel that we encounter this quiet saint.
Four times in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph receives divine instruction in a dream. Each time he trusts and he obeys. On the surface one could easily call Joseph a fool and I am sure some did. He must have been ridiculed when it became known that he took Mary in even though she was already with child. But he trusted and it was this trust that enabled him to weather the storms of ridicule and difficulty that he had to endure following each divine instruction (taking Mary in, picking up everything and heading to Egypt, returning and finally being led to settle in Galilee).
All of this begs the question, “What was it that enabled this depth of trust and certainty in Joseph?” There is one simple description of Joseph at the beginning of it all in Matthew’s gospel that points to the answer. After the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Matthew writes, “Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” (Mt. 1:19) Joseph, simply put, was a good man. He did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.
Here I would like to make a point about Joseph that I fear is being lost in our day. In iconography it has been the tradition to portray Joseph as an elderly man. In fact, it is a more recent adaptation that tends to portray him as a contemporary (age-wise) of Mary.
This is important, I believe, because we live in a time that overvalues youth and devalues age. Might the need to portray Joseph as a young and robust man be a subtle form of age-ism? My question is this; would a younger man have had the wisdom and the life awareness needed for the depth of trust required to face what Joseph had to face? Matthew specifies that Joseph was a “righteous man” – my experience is that one does not just wake up one day “righteous” but that righteousness is gained through a long process of living in right relationship with God and neighbor. Righteousness takes time.
In a world of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and Harry Potter we like the idea of the young person waking up one day to an understanding of his or her uniqueness and wealth of powers and abilities (with very little mentoring and training involved – if any) yet how realistic is this? I don’t think it is very realistic in terms of righteousness and the moral life nor anything else for that matter. Somethings take time – developing skills, knowledge and ability takes time, being righteous before God and neighbor takes time.
I have no problem picturing Joseph as older than Mary and in fact I think this portrayal of Joseph offers an important instruction for us regarding the journey of faith and discipleship and a needed corrective for our time.
It was a common practice in their day for an older widower to take in a younger bride. With this understanding the siblings of Jesus referred to later in the gospel story can be seen as step-brothers and sisters. Children of a previous marriage of Joseph.
(An aside offered here – some would point to these siblings of Jesus as full brothers and sisters thus denying the Church’s long standing teaching regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. My question is this, if Jesus had brothers and sisters why then from the cross did he commend Mary to the care and protection of John the beloved disciple? (John 19: 25-27) If Mary had other children it would have been their duty to care for their mother. It is worthy to note that our Lord does a very tender thing here as he is dying on the cross: he finds his mother a home and he gives his church a mother.)
Joseph – the quiet saint – has much to teach us if we just have the ears to listen.