Fr Billy Swan
From December 2020 to December 2021, the Church celebrated the ‘Year of St Joseph’. It was a year declared by Pope Francis to mark the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph being solemnly declared Patron of the universal Church by Pope Pius IX on 8th December 1870. As he opened the year, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter named ‘Patris Corde’ or ‘With a Father’s Heart’. In that letter, Francis shared the reasons for his own personal devotion to St Joseph while underlining his virtues that we find in the Gospels. In this article, I would like to reflect on one of St Joseph’s greatest titles, given to him by Matthew’s Gospel, that describes him as a ‘Man of Honour’. In what way was Joseph a ‘man of honour’ and how can he teach us to be people of honour?
The Gospel text that describes Joseph as a man of honour comes as St Matthew describes the conception of Jesus ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (1:18). This throws Joseph into a deep crisis. He is betrothed to Mary who is to become his wife and now he finds out that his bride-to-be is pregnant with a child he knows is not his. Joseph, in obedience to God’s law, must dismiss her. He has a choice in dealing with this, divorcing Mary either by a public act or in private form. Joseph chooses the latter for he wants to spare Mary from public shame which would have put her life at risk. Matthew admires this choice of Joseph and ascribes it to the fact that he was a righteous man or man of honour.
In the Bible, being a righteous person or person of honour was not just associated with doing what is right and just but adhering to God’s Word that every faithful Jew at the time would have considered to guarantee what was just and right. According to the very first Psalm, the person who ‘delights in the law of the Lord’ (v. 6) is one who is happy and prospers. For him or her, the law of the Lord is not a burden imposed from without but a law that corresponds to right order and an inner spiritual harmony with God. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, the for the righteous person, “the law is simply Gospel, good news, because he reads it with a personal, loving openness to God and in this way learns to understand and live it from deep within” (Jesus of Nazareth; The Infancy Narratives, 39-40).
Here was Joseph’s dilemma. On one hand he wanted to be faithful to God’s law that demanded that he separate from Mary and cancel plans to marry her. On the other hand, he wanted to protect her because he loved her. In the end, “He (Joseph) seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity. And so, he is inwardly prepared for the new, unexpected and humanly speaking incredible news that comes to him from God” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth; The Infancy Narratives, 41).
As Joseph was in crisis, a breathtaking new horizon opens up before him through the thick clouds in a dream – that the crisis unfolding was all part of the divine plan. “Could it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was really the truth – a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen?” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth; The Infancy Narratives, 41).
Joseph’s initial reaction to divorce Mary informally was based on his own limited perception and understanding of what was unfolding. Now, God reveals a bigger plan that hinges on his faith. Into the firestorm that must have engulfed Joseph’s heart, he is asked to trust – “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). In the face of the most unexpected of circumstances, Joseph is asked to trust in God. This is precisely what Mary was asked to do as well, which she did. And so, Mary and Joseph are united, not just in their love for each other but in the gift of faith and trust in God that would lead their lives in a direction very different from what they anticipated.
The visible form of Joseph’s trust was seen concretely in his actions when Matthew tells us that when he awoke, he “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife” (1:24). The faith of this man of honour translated into a definite act of commitment.
So, what can we learn from Joseph’s example as a ‘man of honour’? What does it mean to be a person of honour like him? Perhaps a good place to start would be the following: “From what we have seen, it follows that Joseph is no insipid plaster saint, but a robust and determined man who successfully navigates his way through both crisis and emergency” (C. Hayden, Come Let us Adore, 73).
For all of us, life is not always smooth travelling. Sometimes we are thrust into crises that are not of our making, or perhaps are of our making. But either way they are circumstances that demand a response. On what basis do we make that response? Most of us would like to think that we respond to these moments by doing what is right but the question remains - what is the measure of a righteous response? When he first heard the news that Mary was pregnant, Joseph thought the right thing to do was to divorce her. But then a higher standard of justice was made known to him by God which he followed and acted upon. Our first reaction to many crises is to fix or to flee. We might think that we are acting according to what is right but often we act impulsively to fix the crisis or flee from it. Again, in the words of Chris Hayden: “Joseph is troubled to hear of Mary’s pregnancy. But his is not the fear and anger of a man bent on self-preservation; even before the angel’s message, he is intent on protecting Mary be acting secretly. Then, when the truth of Jesus is pointed out to him, Joseph does not cling conceitedly to his earlier understanding but opens himself up fully to God’s plan” (C. Hayden, Come Let us Adore Him, 74).
In this light, being a person of honour is doing what is right, not according to our own standards or initial reaction to fix or flee but with an openness to God’s will that opens up new possibilities and invite us to embrace them. How do we consult these broader horizons of divine possibilities? Through prayer, through contemplation of the Scriptures, through conversations with prayerful priests and fellow Christians, consultation of the Church’s wisdom contained in the lives of the saints and the Catechism, through obedient attentiveness to one’s conscience and docility to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we have recourse to these steps, we ensure that our acting is not driven by fixing or fleeing but of loving commitment to what is right as people of honour.
May St Joseph help and inspire us to be people of honour like him.
‘Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.’
(Prayer of Pope Francis from ‘Patris Corde’)