In Praise of Saint Joseph, “Best Knight in the World”

In anticipation of the coming feast of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary – grace and hope to all!

Decades ago, before the present crisis in the Church’s earthly element, devout Catholics used to discuss and debate more edifying matters than the canonical legitimacy of bishops prohibiting the Holy Sacrifice, or the permissibility of unnatural acts, etc. They were simpler times.

One of the more edifying subject areas of debate in those days was in Josephology: the study of Saint Joseph in the divine economy, or the “theology of Saint Joseph.”

Today, in praise of our great Saint and universal Patron, we would like to consider Joseph’s excellence through the lens of a particular occurrence often commented on during his feasts: namely, his decision to put Mary away privately (Mt 1:19).

This event is nearly always discussed in terms of the “Passion of St. Joseph,” or “Joseph’s distress.”

But was he distressed?

Diverse Interpretations

Acknowledging that we are in the realm of speculative theology, that there have been no authoritative and binding pronouncements on the character of this particular event in Sacred Scripture, and that there have been varying interpretations among the Fathers and theologians over the centuries, some interpretations of this particular episode still present themselves as more probable and well-founded than others. The central passage is from Mt 1, below from the Douay-Rheims:

[18] Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. [19] Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. [20] But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. [21] And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS. For he shall save his people from their sins.

[22] Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: [23] Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. [24] And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. [25] And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

From the first century to our own day, one finds several interpretations of this passage in Christian art and preaching, all presenting views of St. Joseph’s choice (verse 19) that differ in four areas:

  • Joseph’s prior degree of perfection in virtue
  • The timing of his knowledge of the Incarnation
  • His internal motivation for “putting Mary away privately”
  • The level of interior distress he experienced

From these varying factors, a few lines of interpretation have been taken regarding Joseph’s interior state and course of action, which we will differentiate as 1) the Suspicion Theory, 2) the Reverence Theory, and 3) the Authority Theory, with a final consideration regarding this third theory that may come as surprising, but nevertheless warrants consideration.

The Suspicion Theory

The “suspicion theory” was that of Augustine (and, it must be said, most Protestants). It goes something like this: Joseph doubted Mary’s virginal integrity, inasmuch as he was not previously informed about the Incarnation, but knew where babies came from. Thus did he intend to fulfill the Law as would normally be done in such cases, albeit “quietly” because he was a rather decent chap.

Although an understandable “first gloss” reading of the text, such a position is unsatisfactory for several reasons – the first of which (raised as early as Origen) is: how could a “just man” resolve to conceal so grave a sin? Furthermore, as vehemently maintained by St. Jerome (Augustine’s contemporary, and a closer student of the Palestinian sources) and most Catholic theologians, the chosen Foster-Father of the Redeemer could never for an instant doubt the Perpetual Virginity of the Immaculate Mother of God.

Such a notion would likewise be incompatible with the long-held sententiae that Joseph was both sanctified in the womb, as well as confirmed in grace at least by the time of his espousal to the Blessed Virgin – Suarez, Gerson, and Ligouri among the exponents there.

The Reverence Theory

There are several versions of the so-called “reverence theory,” also called (inappropriately, as we here maintain) the “humility theory.” It is a far more common and tenable interpretation than the one considered above. It is found among Fathers and theologians including Origen, Jerome, and many others.

Versions of this theory vary most of all with relation to Joseph’s knowledge of the Incarnation – whether it came before or after the angel’s message – but all share the trait of Joseph’s distress at his own unworthiness before the Most Holy. Regardless of when or how he learned the truth of Mary’s divine maternity, this theory maintains that Joseph, perhaps already staggered at the task of guarding the Immaculate Conception, was then so overcome at the majestic reality of the Messiah come among men, that he sought to place the Virgin and her divine Child back into the hands of Providence, through a kind of quiet “bowing out” of the marriage – whether by sending Mary away or removing himself, whether only for a time, or long-term. It is a kind of “exit Joseph, stage left” in the face of a miracle too great for him to bear.

As this theory goes, just as the Jews rightly feared to touch the Ark of the Old Covenant, so Joseph must have feared to touch the True Ark of the New and Eternal Covenant; and now, wonder of wonders, its Divine Contents were soon to appear visibly under his own roof, and be placed in his very hands. He bows out.

Although perhaps understandable in a lesser man (even a lesser Saint), the strongest line of Josephite theology still seems to render this position untenable, specifically in light of Joseph’s perfect virtue: how could “the just man,” already possessed of perfect fortitude and humility (which, as Aquinas explains, entails right regard of self before God), undergo a distress of this kind – such that he would actively seek an escape clause from his own upward calling in Christ?

In some versions, Joseph’s distress is heightened both by the Incarnation being concealed from him, and his own indecision in the unprecedented circumstances. Several mystics relate such a situation, where Joseph is beyond all doubt as to Mary’s integrity, and confident of his own role in the Plan hitherto, but is suddenly faced with an Event unheard-of, above the natural order and apparently contravening the Law, and is given no intellectual light on the matter.

Some mystics suggest that this state even persisted for days or weeks, as a kind of interior crucifixion on the part of both spouses: Joseph in an agony of darkness on the matter and indecision of what to do about it, Mary in an agony of obedience not to make the Mystery known before God permitted. Such would be a grave trial indeed, much as gold is tried by fire. As reported by Ven. Mary of Ágreda: “The august Mary comprehended how important it was that Saint Joseph should have to endure this affliction, by which his spirit was exercised and prepared for the great charge that was to be confided to him.”

But here, too, questions arise: if Joseph was confident of Mary’s integrity and his own place in the Plan, what then was the cause of his distress? And, if he had perfect virtue (specifically prudence), how could there be such an agony of indecision on his part? And still more pointedly: why are the timing details given, and why would the angel need to explain the Child’s origin?

The Authority Theory

Although some choose to include the following explanation as part of the “reverence theory,” it seems to differ enough to be considered separately, and appears to be the most probable explanation: we may call it the “authority theory.” This position suggests that, regardless of Joseph’s prior knowledge of the Incarnation, he acted to put Mary away quietly (whether this is read as his own departure or his arrangement for Mary’s) because he had not been invested with authority to violate God’s external command, publicly revealed by way of the Mosaic Law.

Springing from the convictions that Joseph had been sanctified in the womb and confirmed in divine grace, this position would hold that Joseph acted with immediate and perfect virtue upon the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, and in the only way open to him: submission to public revelation (the precepts of the Law), until such time as God would directly and miraculously reveal otherwise.

As this seems in closest accord with the Gospel narrative, we will also mention a variant of the same theory; one often dismissed as pious romanticism or even offensive – particularly to jaded postmoderns, who remain convinced that Saints are all really “just like us.” The variant is simply that Joseph may not have been distressed at all.

The authority theory, in such a reading, serves to explain why the Gospels make no mention of distress in St. Joseph at the consideration of putting Mary away privately. It also explains why the inclination of Joseph’s will (“voluit”) immediately follows the discovery (“inventa”) of Mary’s pregnancy, which most theologians agree is the discovery by Joseph, and not by the general public. It would further explain why the angel’s message comes immediately afterward, with the assurance that Joseph may break the letter of the Law, citing as justification the identity of the Child: for, here is the Law-Giver, Whose new decree he is to fulfill.

In this reading, one discovers a moving re-presentation of the Test of Abraham (cf. Genesis 22) – an episode that, following St. Paul (Heb 11:17-19), numerous Fathers and Theologians have read as being one in which Abraham did not hesitate at the divine decree, but considered obedience to external revelation as the necessary prerequisite to divine blessing, if even through a miracle on God’s initiative. Just as both Abraham and Joseph were visited with angelic revelations in response to their dispositions of obedience, the scriptural pattern of the two interventions is remarkably similar:

At the point of decisionGn 22:10Mt 1:20
Angel calls man by nameGn 22:11Mt 1:20
+ commands man to haltGn 22:12Mt 1:20
+ pertains to the man’s male childGn 22:12, 16Mt 1:20-21
+ involves man’s fear of the LordGn 22:12Mt 1:20
+ promise of blessing to comeGn 22:17-18Mt 1:21
Man does as commandedGn 22:13, 19ffMt 1:24ff

On this reading of Joseph’s decision, the question of whether he had moral certainty of the Incarnation in advance matters little, for his mission was already perfectly clear to him from the beginning: he maintains complete faith and trust in God throughout his earthly life, and recognizes that the submission of his intellect and will to the only externally verifiably revelation available to him – the decrees of the Mosaic Law – will infallibly fulfill the divine Plan. Like Abraham before him, it is precisely at the point of his movement to fulfill God’s command that God intervenes to reveal a new and higher command, to the man He Himself has chosen for a momentous mission.

Indeed, on this reading, one beholds a Joseph who acts more like a king among men: one who knows himself with perfect confidence, one who is utterly trusting of and faithful to his matchless spouse and Queen, and one possessed of such nobility, strength, and virtuous command that he seeks the divine will with perfect resignation and promptness, filled with faith and trust that God will make a way before him – even if he does not understand how.

Such a vision brings to mind the words of St. Paul: “I rejoice, because I trust you utterly” (2 Cor 7:16), and makes perfect sense of the Propers for today’s Mass. The words of Chrysostom may also be recalled:

‘Just’ here means perfect in every virtue. Joseph, therefore, was just, which means full of moderation and goodness, wanting to send her away in secret. The Gospel makes known the thoughts of this holy man, before he knew this mystery [of the Incarnation], so that we ourselves might not doubt what happened when he learned about it. How extraordinary are this wisdom and virtue! He is so pure and so free from passion… Since, on the one hand, he believed that he was violating the Law by keeping her with him and, on the other hand, to dishonour her and to call her to trial was to expose her to death, he did neither the one nor the other thing, but behaved in a way that is already far superior to the ancient Law.

Why do so many contemporaries dismiss such a reading? Perhaps because it smacks of kingship and nobility, of Carlyle’s Great Man, and that particularly stubborn and unfashionable old myth (long since forsaken in Western culture) of the Best Knight in the World.

He Alone Was Deemend Worthy

We agree with Bl. Schuster (more here) and many other Catholic theologians that Saint Joseph is the greatest Saint after Mary, and greater than John the Baptist in the matter of category, so as not to contradict the words of Our Lord in the Gospel (“least in the kingdom” as matching “lowliness of the handmaid”). Similarly, from the eminent Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange:

The predestination of St. Joseph to be foster-father of the Incarnate Word precedes his predestination to glory and to grace. In other words, the reason why he was predestined to the highest degree of glory after Mary, and in consequence to the highest degree of grace and of charity, is that he was called to be the worthy foster-father and protector of the Man-God. The fact that St. Joseph’s first predestination was one with the decree of the Incarnation shows how elevated his unique mission was. This is what people mean when they say that St. Joseph was made and put into the world to be the foster-father of the Incarnate Word and that God willed for him a high degree of glory and grace to fit him for his task.

Galahad draws forth the sword, from Rackham’s Romance of King Arthur

In the artistic tradition, this motif of the Worthy Joseph, the Joseph-as-Knight and Joseph-as-King concept appears with greatest prominence in the Spanish schools. Some of the images in this article reflect that same tradition.

And although this article has run a bit long, we can’t help but end with a few scattered excerpts on a similar score, from myths ancient and modern, and a bit of private revelation.

“And when they came to the river they found there a stone fleeting, as it were of red marble, and therein stuck a fair rich sword, and in the pommel thereof were precious stones wrought with subtle letters of gold. Then the barons read the letters which said in this wise: ‘Never shall man take me hence, but only he by whose side I ought to hang, and he shall be the best knight of the world.'” (Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur)

“But when Estel was only twenty years of age, it chanced that he returned to Rivendell after great deeds in the company of the sons of Elrond; and Elrond looked at him and was pleased, for he saw that he was fair and noble and was early come to manhood, though he would yet become greater in body and in mind. That day therefore Elrond called him by his true name, and told him who he was and whose son; and he delivered to him the heirlooms of his house. “Here is the ring of Barahir,” he said, “the token of our kinship from afar; and here also are the shards of Narsil. With these you may yet do great deeds; for I foretell that the span of your life shall be greater than the measure of Men, unless evil befalls you or you fail at the test. But the test will be hard and long. …Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.” (Tolkien, Return of the King Appx A)

“Among the number was Joseph, a native of Nazareth. and then living in Jerusalem; for he was one of the descendants of the royal race of David. He was then thirty–three years of age, of handsome person and pleasing countenance, but also of incomparable modesty and gravity; above all he was most chaste in thought and conduct, and most saintly in all his inclinations… known for the utmost purity of his life, holy and irreprehensible in the eyes of God and of men. …[When the priests sought a spouse for the Virgin Mary,] the staff which Joseph held was seen to blossom and at the same time a dove of purest white and resplendent with admirable light, was seen to descend and rest upon the head of the saint… At this manifestation and token from heaven the priests declared saint Joseph as the spouse selected by God himself for the maiden Mary. Calling her forth for her espousal, the chosen one issued forth like the sun, more resplendent than the moon, and she entered into the presence of all with a countenance more beautiful than that of an angel, incomparable in the charm of her beauty, nobility and grace; and the priests espoused her to the most chaste and holy of men, saint Joseph.” (Mary of Agreda’s Mystical City of God)

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