There is a lovely stained glass window of the Nativity created by Christopher Whall (1902) on the right as you enter the south door of the Cathedral at Canterbury. It depicts three angels looking down on the child lying on a bed of straw with Mary prayerfully watching over him. Nearby there is a donkey, small calf and an oxen. But there is no Joseph! Poor Joseph, so often left out to depictions of the birth of Jesus. Yet this Sunday’s gospel from Matthew shows how important was Joseph’s part in the birth and early life of Jesus.
With Mary pregnant, he decided to divorce her informally to spare her publicity and humiliation. In a dream he was told by an angel not to be afraid and to take her home as his wife. Later in the same gospel he is again told in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of Herod. He is not simply an add-on. Not only did he provide the link between Jesus and the line of King David but he was chosen to lead and guide his family as husband and foster father. Joseph was an important male influence in the household in Nazareth, where the family eventually settled.
A friend of mine published an essay a couple of years ago on Joseph, outlining the history of devotion to Joseph. In that essay he refers to Pope Francis’ special devotion to the saint. The Pope acknowledged him as an archetypal figure of protector, defender and consoler. Joseph was the attentive and tender guardian of the Family, a just man who accepts and guards the mysteries of God, as he willingly chose to accept and protect Mary, the woman chosen by God to be the Most Holy and Immaculate Mother of His only Son. When in the Philippines, Pope Francis talked about his devotion to St Joseph. “I have great love for Saint Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength. On my table I have an image of Saint Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church!”
There are two lessons that the sleeping St Joseph can teach us. Firstly, while God doesn’t normally speak to us so directly and dramatically, He very often speaks in times when we silence both our outer and inner worlds. Secondly, after Joseph’s three dreams, he immediately got up each time and acted (even if it meant fleeing the country in the middle of the night!) While we certainly should strive to quiet ourselves to hear those whispers of God in our hearts, we also need to act on what God tells us in the silence.