The Holy Family
The Holy Family
Fr. Joseph Levine; December 27, 2020
Readings: Sir 3:2-6,12-14; Ps 128:1-5; Col 13:12-21; Lk 2:22-40
Today, on this Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. A family needs a father, but fathers are often missing and fatherhood itself has been under attack for some time. So, today I want to focus in a special way on St. Joseph.
On December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis announced a Year of St. Joseph beginning that very day and to continue to December 8, 2021. Since whatever the Pope, exercising the authority entrusted to him by Christ, binds on earth is bound in heaven, we can trust that the God, the Holy Trinity, will respond by granting an abundance of grace through the intercession of St. Joseph. The more we cultivate devotion to St. Joseph during the course of the year, the more we will be blessed by this new outpouring of grace.
It is likely that the Holy Father has declared the Year of St. Joseph at the request of an American priest, Fr. Donald Calloway, who has also written a very fine book on St. Joseph, “Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of our Spiritual Father”. I highly recommend the book, whether you are to make the consecration or not.
Now let me say a little something about St. Joseph.
Leaving Nazareth, he brought the Blessed Virgin to Bethlehem, where the prophecy of the Old Testament prophet Micah was fulfilled. He found for her the cave in which she gave birth to our Savior. He gave entrance to the shepherds and the Magi. He procured the two turtle doves or young pigeons, representing the two living treasures that had been entrusted to his care, and he gave them to the priest to offer in sacrifice. He protected the mother and her Son from the murderous wrath of Herod, rising in the middle of the night and taking them with him to Egypt. After the death of Herod, he brought them back to the land of Israel, settling with them again in Nazareth. There he provided for the Holy Family by the work of his hands and the sweat of his brow. Finally, before Jesus set out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Joseph, having fulfilled the mission entrusted him by God, departed from this world in peace, dying in the arms of Jesus and Mary. More than any other he has merited to hear the words of commendation from his God: Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord. (Mt 25:21)
St. Matthew, who is our primary source for the knowledge of St. Joseph, characterizes him as a “Just man”. (Mt 1:19) Those are words of the highest praise. They speak of the highest perfection. They tell us that St. Joseph was the finest fruit of God’s covenant with Israel, the man most faithful to the law of Moses and the promises to Abraham and the prophets. In the light of the New Testament, we can understand that this was only possible by an extraordinary gift of God’s grace, whereby in a measure above all others, the Blessed Virgin Mary excepted, he received the interior justice of God that comes through faith, the justice that makes a man to be just in the sight of God himself. (cf. Rm 3:21-26) Indeed, he was truly the worthy virginal husband of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
If we meditate deeply on the words of St. Matthew, in light of the Tradition of the Catholic Church, especially as it has developed during the course of the past five centuries and has also been expressed by St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation, “Redemptoris Custos”, “The Guardian of the Redeemer”, we can get a glimpse of the true greatness and holiness of St. Joseph. Unfortunately, this is often obscured by inadequate translations and thoughtless commentaries that are lacking in reverence.
St. Matthew introduces St. Joseph to us as he is pondering in his mind a dilemma: his betrothed, the Virgin Mary, is pregnant. What we will see here is that St. Joseph’s justice is rooted in his attitude of mind and his manner of thinking.
The first thing we need to grasp here is that whatever the precise import of the word ‘betrothed’ as it is used of the relation between Mary and Joseph, for practical purposes it is equivalent of ‘married’. God provided Mary with Joseph to protect her reputation in a time when a woman’s reputation was her life. Jesus was conceived and born within what everyone at the time would have understood as being honorable circumstances. The Virgin of Nazareth would have incurred no shame or dishonor in the small town of Nazareth on account of her pregnancy.
St. Matthew tells us the Blessed Virgin was found with child by the Holy Spirit. The best interpretation that goes back at least to St. Jerome in the 4th century, is that it was St. Joseph who found her with child precisely recognizing that this was the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Joseph knew the character of his wife; he knew her to be a holy, chaste, virgin, consecrated to God. He knew also that she was protected by God. The dilemma was his and his alone. No one else in Nazareth would have known of the interior trial that St. Joseph was passing through; rather, they would have been busy congratulating him.
So, what exactly was St. Joseph’s dilemma? It was not that Mary was pregnant, it was that he was unworthy.
In the time of St. Joseph’s forefather, David, the king sought to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. His first attempt was characterized by pride and presumption. The ark, which should have been carried by priests, was set on an ox cart. The oxen stumbled, the cart swayed, and Uzzah, one of the men guiding the cart, put out his hand to steady the ark. At that moment God displayed his holiness and struck him dead. (cf. 2 Sam 6:6-7) David, stopped the whole enterprise and said, How can the ark of the Lord come to me? (2 Sam 6:9)
He would later bring the Ark to Jerusalem, but only after he had received a sign from God, and he would do it in proper fashion, having the ark carried by the priests.
St. Joseph, when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, recognized that he was in the presence of the living ark of the Lord.
We could think also of the reaction of St. Peter, when Jesus had commanded him to cast out into the deep and cast out his nets. St. Peter did as the Lord commanded, even though he, the master fishermen knew there would be no fish there. Then the nets were filled with a miraculous catch, more than Peter and his companion John, in another boat, could manage. Peter recognizing that he was in the presence of the holiness of God was filled with fear and declared, Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. (Lk 5:8)
More than David and more than St. Peter, St. Joseph, on discovering Mary’s pregnancy would have been filled with a sense of holy fear and unworthiness in the presence of God. He could not presume to dwell with the holy Virgin, Mother of God.
Here we run into a problem of translation. Typically, modern translations will talk about St. Joseph planning quietly to “divorce” Mary. That actually does not make sense. In a small town like Nazareth, a ‘quiet’ or ‘secret’ divorce would be impossible. Any sort of divorce would have certainly brought shame upon Mary, contrary to Joseph’s intention. Nevertheless, while ‘divorce’ is one possible translation of the Greek word that is used in the original, it is not the only possible translation. The true sense, fitting with the reverential fear that Joseph experienced, would have been that Joseph resolved quietly to distance himself from the Virgin. That might have meant something like living in his workshop and leaving the house itself as a sacred sanctuary for the Virgin and child.
That is the context for the message of the angel that he received in the most divine dream that ever a man had: Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:20-21)
The angel addressed Joseph as “Son of David”. He thereby informed the poor carpenter that he was the heir of the royal messianic promise given to David and that he was therefore part of God’s plan. His unique virginal marriage was now confirmed by God. What a blessed man to be given the Blessed Virgin as wife by God himself! Further, the angel also revealed the importance of Joseph’s role as the legal father of Jesus, which would be manifest by his bestowing the name upon him. By giving Jesus his name, he gave him a place in the human family and the people of Israel and transmitted the inheritance of the messianic promise to the One who would bring it to fulfillment. St. Joseph did as he was commanded by the Angel and was faithful to the will of God and the mission entrusted to him.
All of this conforms to the tradition of reflection on the life and mission of St. Joseph that has developed in recent centuries in the Church. It conforms to the teachings of great saints like St. Francis de Sales, the patron of this Diocese, and St. Bernardine of Siena. Nevertheless, it may seem foreign to contemporary ways of thinking.
Here St. Joseph himself has an important lesson for us. His justice began in this thought and attitude of mind, an attitude that was characterized by reverence. We live in a time that is characterized by irreverence and blasphemy. That spirit of irreverence and blasphemy has penetrated even into the life of the Church. When we hold St. Joseph in high esteem, he teaches us how to think with reverence of the sacred reality we meet in Jesus and Mary. He teaches us that we must not drag them down to the level of our own sinfulness, but rather we must let them lift us up to the holiness of God.
Reverence is the highest respect that is due to the highest realities that belong to God himself. When we fail in reverence towards what is highest, how will we respect ourselves and those who are on our own level?
Indeed, our age of irreverence and blasphemy is also an age of increasing crudeness and contempt in human affairs. If we drag the sacred down into the mud of our profane minds, then we will also find ourselves rolling around in the filth and dragging others along with us.
In this year of St. Joseph, let us turn to him that he might teach us anew the spirit of reverence. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Pr 9:10)
That brings us briefly back to the Holy Family and today’s Gospel. We meet the Holy Family in the Temple, fulfilling their religious duties. St. Matthew reveals to us the inner reverence of St. Joseph’s mind. St. Luke reveals to us the outward expression of reverence in the religious practice of the Holy Family. St. Luke shows us that the public worship of God had first place in the life of the Holy Family. That is how it should be in every family, with the father leading the way.