His silence is not an empty thing ... not angry, not disconsolate or weary. Facing such a mystery, what could one say?
St. Joseph, one of the central figures of the Nativity story (in fact one of the central figures of the Christian religion), never speaks a word in the Scriptures. Unlike Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, pharisees who question the Lord, or gentiles who profess faith in Him, Joseph is silent.
The French diplomat-poet Paul Claudel lyrically describes Joseph, saying, “He is silent as the earth when the dew rises, / He feels the fullness of night, and he is at ease with joy and with truth.” Joseph’s silence is not an empty thing.
The nature of Joseph’s silence is a confident thing. “Silent as the earth when the dew rises,” says Claudel. Silence in the order of the dewfall — dewfall of course is mentioned in the Second Eucharistic Prayer and can call to mind the silence of Joseph for us henceforth upon hearing it — the silence of the dewfall is an orderly, natural, constant thing. The dewfall is also hidden, mysterious, and tender.
Such is the silence of Joseph. Believing that, as the Book of Lamentations says, “The Lord’s mercies are new each morning” (Lam. 3:22), Joseph can rest in peace, placing his trust in the Lord’s designs. The manna descended upon the Israelites in the wilderness as a gentle dewfall (Ex. 14). Joseph, knowing the Lord had provided in past ages, knew the Lord would sustain him. As a father, whose love is constant, hidden, and tender like the dewfall, so the Lord loves his people. Animated by God’s own example of love, that is how Joseph loves the Lord.
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Joseph’s silence is neither naive nor Pollyannaish. Claudel notes Joseph “feels the fullness of night.” Joseph is a man of the world, although clearly not a worldly man. He has seen the plight of his people. A carpenter, he would have known the frustrations of daily business: completing and changing orders, negotiating prices, collecting debts. How could the sorrows of the world have escaped him? Further still, a just man (meaning a religious one), would know the sorrow of people turning from God. Longing for the foretold savior, Joseph awaited in silence the fulfillment of God’s plan.
This does not mean that Joseph was not disturbed by Mary’s news. Indeed, it took the visit of an angel in his dreams to console him. However, Pope Benedict XVI remarks, “To trust God does not mean to see everything clearly according to our criteria, it does not mean to carry out what we have planned; to trust God means to empty ourselves of ourselves and to deny ourselves, because only one who accepts losing himself for God can be ‘just’ as St. Joseph, that is, can conform his own will to God’s and thus be fulfilled.” Joseph’s silence was not angry. Neither was it disconsolate or weary. Joseph’s silence was his expression of patiently allowing the Lord to reveal all that He had in store.
Sometimes frustration overtakes believers. We dare to tame God’s works and turn away when He defies our simple categories. The Christian faith is not something that can wholly be captured by words. This is what it means to call the events of Christmas (the holy Incarnation, the marriage of an ever-Virgin woman, the homage of angels, shepherds and Magi at Bethlehem’s manger) holy mysteries. Words can explain them, in the sense that these sacred events are not illogical, but words cannot domesticate them. God’s designs are not against our human reason, but His works do transcend it. Facing such a mystery, what could one say?
Joseph’s silence is the response of love. Recall Claudel’s words, “He is at ease with joy and with truth.” The design of First Truth, the providential plan which orders the universe is not something to fear. God’s work in our lives does not cause alarm, nor does He induce anxiety or apprehension. The battle, of course, on this side of eternity is to be so given over to God, that we find ourselves at home with joy and totally desirous of Truth. This is a work of saints: To fight with every fiber of their being the temptation to doubt God’s work. This is the work of Joseph’s silence: to respond with love to presence of joy and truth.
When Joseph saw the infant Christ, like Mary he gazed upon the face of God. Heretofore, as St. John’s Gospel tells us, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). With the eyes of faith, Joseph could see clearly. He believed in the plan announced by the angel. His silence was a profession of faith before the very Word-made-Flesh. St. Joseph, holy patriarch, patron of the Universal Church, obtain the silence of faith for us!
Teaming with St. Joseph at Advent’s end