Our shrines to Mary and Joseph are in opposite corners at the back of the nave. Both receive visitors who pray and light votive candles. I wonder how often, if ever, anyone connects the two in devotions. Just a few days ago, someone did, and was moved to write to me about it. What she wrote transformed and immeasurably enriched my understanding of St. Joseph. I will quote her few lines below.
In all of Scripture, there is not one word recorded of anything that Joseph said. We know him by his dreams and his actions as the protector of the Virgin and Child. He was a descendant of King David, a carpenter, open to direct communication from God in dreams and obediently responsive to what he discerned, and willing to take risks out of obedience to God. And it is clear that he loved Mary.
Long tradition tells us that he was an older man, perhaps a widower with children, and that by marrying Mary he became her protector in her vocation as Mother of the Messiah. He was still alive when Jesus was twelve and the Holy Family traveled to Jerusalem. When Jesus began his public ministry nearly twenty years later, Joseph is no longer in the narrative. He had died in the meantime and Mary was a widow in her forties.
Another long tradition is that Mary was always a virgin. There is much Scriptural support for this belief, though not definitive, and the title “ever-virgin” is ancient and nearly universal from the early years of the Church. In the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Joseph is referred to as Mary’s “most chaste spouse”. Most believers reduce this belief to the understanding that Joseph and Mary did not have sex.
I am chagrined to admit that I hadn’t thought much farther than that myself until a few days ago. But if we stop there, considering only what did not occur between them, the haunting implications of what their loving relationship actually was are missed, and we are left with a poverty-stricken image of negativity or absence. The reflection I received from a member of Blessed Sacrament on the subject caught me up short. If we take it as given that Mary and Joseph were not sexually intimate, we must not and cannot rightly conclude that they therefore had no intimacy. In chastity, and even in celibacy, there still can be and should be deep intimacy, for are we not called truly to love? And can there be genuine love without intimacy of some kind?
Looking across the lawn between the hall and the side door of the church, I caught sight of a young woman going into the church to pray. I never saw her leave and assume that she was there for a long time. Later I learned that she had visited the shrines of both Mary and Joseph, and in her devotions connected the two in a way I had never even thought of before. She was moved to write to me about her experience, and said, “I think that St. Joseph held the Blessed Virgin a lot: I don’t know how else she could have survived... and I think that was probably terrifying for him, and probably conflicting---a very fine edge, but not an impossible balance since he did it.” She added later, “In retrospect, it seems so obvious I want to laugh: what do we think St. Joseph was doing? Standing around holding the reins of the donkey while a lonely girl carried the God-Man?”
These few words had enormous impact on me and opened up a profound depth in the meaning of true love as manifested in the Holy Family. Our wayward culture seems to know only gratuitous sex or painful isolation; it knows almost nothing of genuine love of any kind, with all of its limitless manifestations.
The young woman came somehow to know that, if Joseph’s love for Mary led him to hold her a lot, it would have been costly to him. I have no idea how she could have received that insight, but I think it must have been so. We know of the sword that was prophesied for the heart of the Mother of the Messiah; was there not also a price for Joseph to pay for his fidelity to his vocation, his lifelong devotion to the most lovable woman of all time? I thought of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, and Jesus felt power going out of him. There is a kind of love in which power is given from the lover to the beloved: sacrificial love in any of its manifold expressions.
Joseph was not only a son of David; he was also a son of Boaz, whom I described in a recent blogpost as “a real man”—one who knows how to love a woman. Joseph was obedient to God, protective of the ones he loved, and willing to pay a price not only for their safety but to ensure that they were blessed. He was self-effacing and humble, yet strong and reliable. His strength passed into the Virgin Mother, shaping and filling her through the years of their marriage for the costly future days of her Son’s ministry that he would not live to see. “Blessed indeed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.”
I plan to post something about Mary next week on her feast day, August 15, but a post about Joseph begged to be written today.