1:24-25. Then rising up from sleep, Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commmanded him, and received his wife. And he did not know her before she bore a son, and he called his name Jesus.
a) These few words provide perhaps the deepest and most intimate glimpse into the heart of our spiritual father, Saint Joseph. A man of silence, of reverence, of humility, we have no words of his recorded in Scripture. But this silence itself speaks immensely. In his place of greatest vulnerability and defenselessness—in his sleep—the angel of God has come to him and has spoken to him. And the words of the angel are an entrustment and an encouragement, two acts which the masculine heart deeply needs and desires in order to be set free to love profoundly and authentically: an entrustment of Mary and the child into his care, and an encouragement to not be afraid to love them deeply and ardently, and to let the whole of his manly being enfold, protect, and expend itself in sheltering and caring for them. This is what comes from the angel. What comes from Joseph in response reveals the nature of his heart: having received this entrustment and encouragement he springs into action immediately, without the complications and delays that come from pride or fear. He does not stand at a distance—which was his first response, born of hesitation and uncertainty before the mystery alive in Mary—but rather draws near and encircles in his love, because he himself knows that he is first encircled in the love of God.
The prompt, joyful, and spontaneous obedience of Joseph reveals the purity of his heart, and the placid transparency of his soul: like a tranquil lake reflecting the light of the sun that shines upon it. Beforehand he was uncertain, not because of selfishness or resistance to grace, but simply because of natural confusion and the limits of human comprehension, because the way of God had not yet been made known to him. But once this way becomes clear (and not on the basis of his own natural foreknowledge or intelligence but as a gift descending upon his restful heart awaiting God), he sets out upon it with vigorous readiness and docile surrender. He sets out upon it with a lively faith. Truly, he is a just man.
We see here how the obedience of Joseph is beautifully interwoven with his chastity and his poverty of spirit; he is so docile to God’s direction, to the inspiration of the Spirit through the angel, because his heart is free, his heart is free to love. Unmarred by lust or the need to possess Mary for himself, unhindered by clinging to control over his own life or manner of operating, he is able to let his life be swept up into the embrace of God and his divine activity. He is able to walk in the great “unknown” of grace, the path that God alone knows and that forever surprises the human heart that walks upon it. And yet this unknown is nothing something terrifying or fear inducing—not, that is, to the heart that comes to know who God truly is. Yes, as we draw near in spirit to the relationship of mother, child, and foster-father, we can feel a sweet and beautiful atmosphere exhale upon us. The atmosphere of this family, the heartbeat of this obedience, is not a rigid uptightness, a fearful scrupulosity, but a breadth of heart, an expansiveness of spirit—born of radical trust and total surrender—that allows them to relax and play at every step of the journey, whatever it may hold.
Yes, true poverty is not constricted, miserly, and fearful; it is not merely thrifty, merely frugal. It is, rather, prolific, generous, and carefree. So too authentic chastity is not repressed, not contained by mere force of will or intellectual decision; it is, rather, born of a deeper seeing of the heart, which has wedded itself to the higher value of virginity and to the way of loving and being present that is made possible by virginity. Finally, evangelical obedience is not a submission of oneself to a superior power, a more mighty will; it is, rather, simply a loving, filial, and confident trust in Love and all that Love desires for our welfare and for the welfare of all. It is a wholehearted and simple acceptance of the immense love in the heart of the heavenly Father, and the way in which this love marks out the path of life, in the best and most beautiful way, for each one of his children.
In all of this, we see that Joseph—as Mary too—is a truly “righteous person,” not merely in a legal adherence to the law of Israel, but in the deepest and most authentic evangelical sense. He is one of the true remnant of Israel, of which the prophets spoke. He is one of the poor, the anawim, who, having learned the deepest lessons of salvation history, have come to stand before God in the disposition of complete open-handedness, in radical vulnerability of heart, awaiting the salvation that can only come from him, and ready to respond to it with vigorous and generous hearts.
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Please allow me now to follow a path of reflection which unfolds at this point, which shall lead (supposedly) away from our focus, only to return to it more deeply and intimately. I speak of this, also, because it is so essential to our times, and to the healing of the Church today, as well as to the radiant transparency of her witness in the world. Above I mentioned that the faith of Saint Joseph was not constricted or fearful, but expansive in trust and playfulness, and precisely because of this he was able to follow God with vigorous readiness. How beautiful this is, and how important! This Josephite faith is precisely what our world needs so deeply; or to speak more accurately, this faith as exemplified by the Holy Family, by Mary and Joseph together with their Child, Jesus Christ, in the intimate home of Nazareth, is the key to allowing the Church’s witness, evangelization, and mystery to be tangible and intelligible in the world of the twenty-first century, and into the future.
We live in a society that is obsessed with the question of personal happiness and well-being. One look at the advertisements that throw themselves before us everywhere we turn reveals this; one look at our indulgences, our habits, and the things that we, as a culture, value, impresses this upon us. Having severed ourselves from our origin in God, and from the guidance that his presence and truth gives to our life, and also from the existential meaning of what it means to be a creature, to be human in the midst of the world, we have replaced this instead with a materialism that arises from the roots of atheistic existentialism—the belief that faith in God is dead, and that henceforth we are our own god, the determiner of the nature of reality and the arbiter of our own destiny.
And yet in practice this no longer looks like the “heroic” audacity of the founders of atheistic existentialism (such as Nietzche and Sartre, and even Kant and Descartes), willing to look into the abyss of absurdity, confronting the despair of meaninglessness, and choosing instead to create meaning from within themselves. No, rather, in practice it often simply looks like individualistic hedonism or pragmatism, the pursuit of pleasure, power, and possession, with little or no reference to objective truth or moral reality. These, after all, are thought to be relative, up to the “value-preferences” of each individual person. What is really real is not objective truth, and certainly not some universal moral law binding all individuals equally; rather, what is real is only my self (though I don’t say it to myself in so many words). All else is uncertain; all else is beyond my ability. I should tolerate others just as they tolerate me. They have their happiness and I have mine. They have their rights and I have mine. Let us simply not interfere with each other, tolerating each other’s opinions and beliefs, our own preferences.
But, of course, the aspiration towards moral nobility and goodness still lies within us, implanted in us as it is by God himself, and essential to our nature as human beings. We still feel within us the impulse to self-transcendence, to the movement from “I” to “You,” from isolation into the “We” of community. But without its foundation in an objective truth that is equally and universally binding on all, which is the living-space in which all can meet and encounter, this movement out experiences so many frustrations in its very expression. Relativistic as so much of our society is, the spark of altruism that says that we should all work together for common goals that all agree are good comes up again an insurmountable limit—as we have seen in the previous quote of Benedict XVI. (And these goals, not being rooted in a deeper time-transcending reality, tend to be those “pet” goals of our contemporary society, those common denominators that all people wouldn’t dare disagree with, like relief for the poorer countries, the rights of minorities, particularly sexual or gender minorities, and a well-ordered and materially affluent society, world peace). In fact once objective truth has been dismissed, and criterion which are equally binding on all and from which persons can deviate—being, thus in error—there is very little or no stable ground on which we can “work together” for the common good. Though it may not appear so immediately, little by little the frailty of the ground of “mutual tolerance” will show itself, and, without a common pursuit of objective, universal truth, our tolerance, our cooperation, will degenerate into mutual use, I benefiting from you and you benefiting from me, and yet neither of us serving a reality beyond ourselves. As it is said, it takes three to love: you, me, and the reality in which we both find our home, and which unites us. You, me, and the Trinity.
After this, we can return to the nature of true faith, as exemplified by Saint Joseph and our Blessed Mother. Faith is not a merely personal, “private” consolation (Marx’s “opium of the masses”), a flight into a subjectivism of the emotions in which we pat ourselves on the back with religious truisms and worship a God of our own imaginings because facing the naked truth of the world is too scary. Of course, this too is a temptation for the fallen human heart; yet it is not true faith, but its corruption. Real faith, particularly in its most mature expression, in its fullness as Christian, Catholic faith, is a living contact with the Reality of all realities; and as such, it is true consolation, born not of self-medication with particular “religious truths,” but of a living, personal contact with the God who sees, knows, and loves all of reality and each one of his children, and who is the solid foundation of all truth, revealing it to us in the revelation of himself. Yes, it is union, in the vulnerability and powerlessness of true acceptance and surrender, in personal relationship, with the God who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty itself.
Faith is thus also stepping beyond our own sight, comprehension, and control in order to entrust our lives into the care of the One who loves us. And in this, it is buoyed up by the certainty that what we ourselves cannot yet see and comprehend is fully known by God, transparent to his gaze, and that his very seeing marks out the path for us. And as we walk from our own narrow and dim seeing into the space of his seeing, his seeing of us and of the living space of communion and life into which he calls us, we too come to see, in him and through him and with him. Yes, precisely in walking in trust in the seeing of God, faith unlocks the possibility of deeper seeing, of more intimate knowing, of unmediated contact with realities that were invisible to us before, not because they are hidden, but because our hearts could not see, because we did not have the eyes to see.
Faith’s discernment of choices in life, both big and small, indeed lies in the ever-deepening capacity to follow the voice of Love in the heart—this Love-that-sees, and, in seeing, begets light and clarity—and, through this following, to come ourselves to see. And the choice to follow is always, to a greater or lesser degree, experienced as a “leap,” as a step into the unknown. This is because faith—joined to hope and love—is always an expansion outward, a reaching out beyond myself to God, a movement from “I” to “You,” like Peter walking on the water to come to Jesus and Joseph responding to the call of the angel. At first, in the incipient movements of faith, whether the primal act of belief in God and in Christ or in a particular “shift” in the growth of faith or life—in ever-renewed conversion and a deepened commitment to the fullness of sanctity that calls for all of us—there is always a space of hesitation, of doubt, in which one can move either back into the security of the “known,” or the “already-experienced,” or can move forward into the alluring mystery of the unknown (yet deeply Known) which nonetheless speaks of something even more solid, even more secure, even more certain. And as this step is made, as one grows in the walking and begins to truly inhabit the new space opened up by faith, what beforehand was obscure, unknown, and fear-inducing, becomes peace-filled and radiant clarity. For now the heart knows, through direct faith-contact, through the vivid experience of living intimacy, the reality which before it could only intuit from a distance, and whose voice it heard echoing across the this distance, inviting nearer.