Thursday, 24 December 2015

St. Joseph and Christmas: The Man behind the Scenes


An article exploring the significance of Joseph, the importance of a true devotion to Joseph as the perfect means of glorifying Jesus, and a personal reflection upon the time I played Joseph in a nativity play - all within the context of understanding Joseph's role in Christmas and the spiritual life as 'the man behind the scenes'. 



No Joseph, No Christmas


The wondrous event of Christmas involves three main characters: Jesus the star of the show, Mary the co-star, and Joseph who is at once the co-co-star and the man behind the scenes – the man drawing the curtain and navigating the spotlight as it were. Each of these three members are essential and necessary to the Christmas story, yet I want to speak of the least mentioned: the man behind the scenes. If it weren’t for Joseph there would be no Christmas. If Joseph hadn’t have believed that Mary was still a virgin and was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:24); then according to the custom of the Mosaic Law, Mary – whose rounded belly would eventually show – would have been stoned to death under what people would have deemed a certain sign of adultery. Hence if there was no Joseph, there would have been no Mary and no baby Jesus, and thus no Christmas.

St. Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Custos (1989, 7) writes:

Joseph's marriage to Mary is the juridical basis of his fatherhood. It was to assure fatherly protection for Jesus that God chose Joseph to be Mary's spouse… And while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary's marriage to Joseph, because juridically Joseph's fatherhood depends on it…

The Son of Mary is also Joseph's Son by virtue of the marriage bond that unites them: "By reason of their faithful marriage both of them deserve to be called Christ's parents, not only his mother, but also his father, who was a parent in the same way that he was the mother's spouse: in mind, not in the flesh."[1] In this marriage none of the requisites of marriage were lacking: "In Christ's parents all the goods of marriage were realized-offspring, fidelity, the sacrament: the offspring being the Lord Jesus himself; fidelity, since there was no adultery: the sacrament, since there was no divorce."[2]

St. Joseph: The Highest Place


Indeed St. Joseph is so important he is definitively honoured by the Church as the greatest Saint after the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church applies the title Latria – worship and adoration – to God the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Hyperdulia – the highest veneration (not worship) – is applied to the Virgin Mary. And the term Dulia – veneration – is applied to the saints. However to Joseph alone is Protodulia – the first veneration – due, which means that after our Lady, Joseph is given the highest place! This highest place occupied by St. Joseph is exactly because he was chosen by God the Father to be His living icon and representative on earth in the flesh. He was in turn chosen by the Word to be His human father; as well as having been chosen to be the spouse and custodian of the holiest woman and person – the Virgin Mary, whose honour and virginity Joseph safeguarded.[3] St. Joseph’s office as Foster Father of Jesus and Spouse of Mary is an office even greater than Holy Orders and its greatest realisation in the Papal Office; since a consensus of theologians during the past several centuries in expounding on Church teaching articulate that each member of the Holy Family belonged to the Hypostatic Order – the highest Order of the Church.[4]

Consequentially, in order to glorify Jesus perfectly and to honour Mary perfectly, St. Joseph must be given the highest place in our devotional lives, and our way of thinking. Yet sadly this is often not the case. The devotional neglect and lack of appreciation and understanding of Joseph, reflects the crisis of the family, and especially the crisis of fatherhood and paternity in our world today. Jesus and Mary desire us to practice true devotion to Joseph, especially Jesus who perfectly fulfilled the commandment to honour his mother and father – an honouring we are all called to enter into and imitate.

The Hidden and Forgotten One


Indeed St. Joseph is known as the Hidden Saint, the Silent Saint and the Forgotten Saint. He never says a word in the Scriptures, despite the fact that he’s the second greatest Saint- greater than all the old prophets and the Apostles. Although devotion to him traces its origins to the Early Church and Early Fathers, a deeper appreciation and understanding of Joseph’s role in the Mystic Body of the Church has only really been the case since the fourteenth century, and especially since the sixteenth century. However despite the cultivation of this Josephine sensibility there still remains much to be said from the top of the Church, and much to trickle down to the ordinary believer. For as the Dominican friar Isidore Isolani (1480? – 1528 A.D.) prophesied:

Before the day of judgement all the peoples will know and revere the name of the Lord, and the magnificent gifts that God has given St. Joseph, gifts he has wanted to keep almost hidden for a long period of time. It is then that the name of Joseph will abound…for the Lord will open the ears of their intelligence and great men will scrutinize the inner gifts of God hidden in St. Joseph…St. Joseph will give graces from heaven on high to people who will invoke him…[5]

Already however, this Josephine movement and revolution has begun, and we through practicing a true devotion to him can become a part of it for the greater glory of God – who like any artist receives honour when we esteem and value his master pieces, namely when we esteem and honour his greatest creations: Mary and Joseph.

Joseph’s Role as Patron of the Universal Church


Joseph - Patron of the Universal Church
There are various titles are attributed to St. Joseph, here is a short list of some of his titles.

Light Amongst Patriarchs
Spouse of the Mother of God
Virginal Father of Jesus
Foster-Father of Jesus
Head of the Most Holy Family
Patron of the Universal Church
Patron of the Dying
Guardian of Virgins
Terror of Demons

One of the roles of Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church is to bring the Church and its individual members – you and me – into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Mary, as the perfect and efficacious means by which he brings us at the same time into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus. This role of Joseph is really the Eternal Father working in, with and through him. If we want to draw nearer to Jesus, we need to draw nearer to Mary. If we want to draw even nearer to Jesus, then we have to draw even nearer to Mary, and we can only do this if we draw near to Joseph.

True Devotion to Joseph


Yet what does devotion to Joseph look like? It surely involves prayers to and through him, conversing with him and seeking his aid, and even consecration to him – as the ultimate means of consecrating oneself to Jesus through Mary. Yet true devotion although it involves exterior acts, does not consist in exterior acts, since true devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph consists in a habitual disposition and state of soul. St. Louis de Montfort articulates this in The Secret of Mary and in True Devotion. In the latter he writes in regards to Mary (yet it can be applied to true devotion to Joseph as well):

As this devotion essentially consists in a state of soul, it will not be understood in the same way by everyone. Some - the great majority - will stop short at the threshold and go no further. Others - not many - will take but one step into its interior. Who will take a second step? Who will take a third? Finally who will remain in it permanently? Only the one to whom the Spirit of Jesus reveals the secret. (Part I, Chapter 2, 119).

Yet what is distinguishable about devotion to Joseph is that he, in the likeness of God the Father, is truly the Hidden and Silent One. Thus more than devotion to anyone else, devotion to him is more about being, silence, and contemplating, rather than doing, speaking and conversing. Yet the reason for this is because true devotion to Joseph is never separate from true devotion to Mary and ultimately to Jesus. Hence true devotion to Joseph is really that hidden and secret burrow that lies within the heart of true devotion to Mary, and at the summit of adoration of the Godhead in Christ Jesus. It is only more distinctly obscure and silent because it is precisely a deeper penetration into Marian devotion and into adoration of Jesus. Ultimately true devotion to Joseph is about spiritually entering into the role of Joseph, by which one enters into Mary – so that surrendered to them, as was the child Jesus who “was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51), they might mystically establish their dwelling as the Holy Family within us – making us their Holy House of Nazareth. A spiritual house which the Father builds through Joseph, and which the Spirit makes into a home through Mary. This in turn efficaciously draws down and perfects within us the indwelling of the Holy Trinity – just as the Trinity perfectly dwelt in the Holy House of Nazareth on earth.

Practically Living out a Devotion to Joseph


Fr. Andrew Doze, a chaplain at Lourdes, writes in his book Shadow of the Father what this devotion to Joseph practically involves:

The Holy Family in the Carpentry Shop, Gerrit van Honthorst.
To become a son of Joseph [like Jesus whom the Scripture calls ‘Son of Joseph’ (cf Jn 6:42)], to imitate what the father does (cf Jn 5:19) is a very simple way of directing one’s mental life by slipping out of one’s thoughts, out of interior locutions, out of various impressions so that these potential “spiritual enemies” (cf Eph 6:12) have no longer any ways of access. Short moments of quiet…of presence to real impressions are much more precious than one might think; they help us tear ourselves away from panic, from negative thoughts, from dangerous distractions…to see what is before our eyes, to touch really what is at hand, to listen to a light sound, if possible as natural as the wind, water or the song of a bird. All these humble exercises draw the human soul away from dangerous influences, on which it has little hold, and open it to divine influence.[6]

This simplicity of being present in the moment, so that we might encounter the Divine Presence which is veiled behind the ordinary experiences of daily life is the art which Joseph perfected. Since he served God in Jesus, through Mary, by living life as an ordinary carpenter and family man. Yet in the midst of this ordinariness, in fact in one sense even because of it, he attained the most extraordinary sanctity and soared into the heights of contemplation – all because he knew how to make the most of the now – doing all for the love of Jesus and Mary. St. Teresa of Avila understood Joseph in this manner, and hence she placed herself in his care as her Master of Prayer.

Biblical Imagery Alluding to St. Joseph


If we consider biblical imagery applied to Jesus and Mary, we can infer the place of Joseph. Thus whilst Jesus is the Gold of Salvation, Mary is the Treasure Chest in which this gold is kept; with Joseph being the Key to the chest and its Guardian. If Jesus is the Manna, the Bread from heaven, and Mary the Vessel in which it is kept; then Joseph is the Lid to this vessel. If Jesus is the Rain that descended from heaven, then Mary is represented by the soil which receives it, and Joseph by the cloud which is ultimately a symbol of the Father. If Jesus is the Temple of God, and Mary the Mystic Jerusalem in which this Temple is housed, then Joseph is the Walls and Watchman of the Mystic City.

Joseph the Patriarch as a Type of St. Joseph


The Dream of St. Joseph, Philippe de Champaigne, 1642-1643.
The Old Testament figure of the patriarch Joseph serves as a type of Jesus – as one who was betrayed, and suffered trials, through which he came to redeem his brethren from death, whilst forgiving his brothers in a Messianic way, for having sold him into slavery. Yet at once this Joseph of old serves as a brilliant typus of St. Joseph. They share the same name, both alike experience prophetic dreams, both have parents with the same name, since tradition attests that St. Joseph’s parents were also named Jacob and Rachel; both were forced into Egypt because of persecution – remembering that the Hoy Family had to flee into exile (Mt 2:13-15); both are associated with the concept of the cloak; and both Josephs were set in charge over a household and kingdom, as we shall explain.

Among the dreams that the Patriarch Joseph had was the dream when he saw “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars” bowing down to him (Gen 37:9). At the time Joseph’s brothers rebuked him, since his immediate family were aware that the sun symbolised Jacob, the moon his mother Rachel, and the stars his brothers. This dream was partly fulfilled when he was elevated by Pharaoh as the Vice-Regent of Egypt for having successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph says to Pharaoh that his dreams refer to seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine, and that during these seven years of plenty, grain should be stored in granaries in order to endure throughout the seven years of famine. Eventually Joseph’s own family wind up in Egypt because they are in need of grain, and in time Jacob and his eleven sons bow down before Joseph who is the ruler of the land. Rachel however had already died, and thus in an explicit manner the dream of Joseph was not completely fulfilled.

Yet this dream finds its ultimate fulfillment in St. Joseph – to whom “the sun, the moon, and eleven stars” bowed down. Since Jesus symbolised by the sun, bowed himself to Joseph’s paternal authority (Lk 2:51). Mary symbolised by the moon, subjected herself to the loving protection and headship of Joseph her husband (Eph 5:22). Whilst the eleven stars signify the eleven Apostles (excluding Judas) who in turn represent the Magisterium – the Bishops and the Pope. With these ‘eleven stars’- the whole Church and the Magisterium – bowing before Joseph as the Spiritual Father of the Church, the Prince of the Church and Patron of the Universal Church. Of course such ‘bowing’ is not a ‘bowing’ of worship, but of veneration and obedience, as St. Paul writes: “obey your earthly masters” (Eph 6:5), so even more so does this apply to obeying one’s spiritual masters.

Overseer of the Pharoah’s Granaries, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874.
Furthermore, as Pharaoh placed Joseph as the second in charge of Egypt so that no man could “lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41:44) without his consent; so too, Jesus, the King of Kings, submitted himself to St. Joseph by placing him as the second in charge of the Kingdom of God, as his human Father, and as the Vice-Regent and Patron of the Universal Church. And earlier in Joseph’s narrative,  Potiphar placed Joseph as the master and Lord of his household, whence it is written: “So Joseph found favour in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had” (Gen 39:4). This is an allegorical allusion to St. Joseph whom Jesus as God placed as the Master of the House of Nazareth, as the Head of the Holy Family, and as Master of the House of the Church by being her Patron; along with placing “him in charge of all” graces which Jesus had deposited into Mary the “full of grace” (Lk 1:28).

In the Old Testament Joseph narrative, Egypt’s grain is stored in large granaries, whilst Joseph is the one to whom the people must go in order to receive and buy this grain: “All the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen 41:77a). Spiritually speaking, Jesus is the Wheat from Heaven (Ps 81:16) and Mary is the Granary in which this Wheat is stored – because being “full of grace” She was full of God, and thus full of Jesus the Divine Wheat. St. Joseph is thus the one to whom we must go if we really want to flourish and thrive in the spiritual life. Since those who went to the Patriarch Joseph escaped the malnourishment of the famine, whilst those who go to St. Joseph - through true devotion to him - escape the famine of spiritual stagnation and a hidden worldliness which often assails the Christian.

Joseph the Gatekeeper who Opens the Way to Divine Intimacy


The words of Fr. Doze are very significant, and are in keeping with these various biblical imageries of St. Joseph we have mentioned. He writes: “Only those admitted by Joseph will enter into the intimacy of the Holy Family: shepherds, Magi, Simeon, Anna.”[7] To enter into this intimacy of the Holy Family as a fourth member and sibling of Christ Jesus, is to enter into the eternal Divine Intimacy of the Trinity, which is the circumincession – the mutual indwelling and romantic exchange – between each of the Three Divine Persons who share the One Divine Essence. So we see that Christ is the Narrow Way, Mary the Gate to this way, and Joseph is the Gate Keeper. Hence we ascertain the meaning of the words of Pharaoh, which can be understood as words spoken by Jesus to us in referral to St. Joseph: “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do” (Gen 41:55c).

Indeed all Christians who walk along the Way who is Christ, do so by passing through Mary whether they acknowledge this fact or not, and they can only do so because of the mediation of Joseph who is the Patron and the Gate Keeper of the Universal Church. Yet without explicit true devotion to Mary and Joseph one will not walk the narrow path within the narrow path – a path that Mary and Joseph themselves walked; and one will not be able to proceed too far or too hastily along this path, because without devotion to the created parents of Jesus one will not be able to live and enter into His House as His brother or sister – but at the most, one will remain playing outside with Him as a next door neighbour.

Joseph’s Role in the Christmas Mystery: A Personal Account


Now we come to consider the role of Joseph in the Christmas mystery, as the man behind the scenes. I would like to personally share an account in which Joseph, in an ordinary yet special way, opened the door to me to enter into the intimacy of His Family.

A couple of years ago I was asked to play the role of Joseph in a silent play which was the accompaniment to a professional choir which sung to the backing of a piano and various stringed instruments. The young woman who played Mary, and myself, were providentially chosen by God, yet we were both last minute selections. We were not even on the bottom of the list of candidates - as we weren’t even on the list.

The play involved core characters, well designed costumes, minimalistic stage props, and minimal yet impressionable acting. The stable was at ‘stage left’ and was the focal point. The event took place at night, with presumably a bright satellite above serving as our Star of Bethlehem. The play commenced with Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, followed by being turned away at the inn doors, and the arrival at the only available place: the stable. During the majority of the production Mary and myself were sitting in the stable, with baby Jesus – a real looking statue – placed in the manger. At various intervals the shepherds came to visit – who were Swedish tourists who were working on the apple cider orchard in which the event took place; followed by the three kings, who were older chaps. Then at the half way point of the production - as we were told to do according to the ethereal script - Mary and myself slowly went back stage leaving baby Jesus as the planned focal point for meditation.

However after slipping back stage for only a minute, the director approached us and said: “I wish you guys never left, it was so perfect but now it’s missing something. I know I said to leave, but if you guys can make your way back, and return there for the rest of the production that would be perfect.” And so embarrassed a little (okay, I was, a lot), we slowly returned to our positions – Mary seated on the bale of hay beside baby Jesus, whilst this time I was seated halfway on the hay (I was standing before), slightly aback. According to the comments afterwards it was a beautiful life-sized nativity which served as a realistic icon for contemplation. People were so moved that even one middle aged man, who supposedly was not religious, cried.

Yet in regards to my personal experience of the occasion, in the role of Joseph, it was truly a privileged and anointed experience. Throughout the week of being aware of playing this role, I had prayed that it would truly be the Holy Family who would be acting and making themselves present. I prayed that Mary would especially work through the person God willed to play Mary; and that Joseph would allow me to catch a glimpse into his person, and that I might enter into his role through the experience. My prayers, in unison with others, were answered.

Nativity Painting At Shepherds Fields, Munir Alawi.
During the play, especially during the extended stable scene, where we’d occasionally smile at one another and lovingly look and touch the statue of baby Jesus – I literally felt I was in Joseph’s shoes. The funny thing was that although it would have seemed I was one of the main characters, I had this profound sense that I was behind the scenes, and that Mary, and most of all Jesus, were all that mattered. Hence my slight gestures, body language, and mind set, were all directed towards Mary and Jesus, with the intention of drawing the crowds focus upon both of them. I even felt a spiritual spousal and paternal chaste love well up inside of me for Mary and Jesus, so that I wasn’t even trying to act like Joseph, or to be or do what Joseph would have done, I simply thought of “how can I draw attention to Mary and Jesus”. Which is certainly the only thought that would have resonated in the mind of Joseph.

I also experienced a deep admiration for Mary and Jesus during the role, and a quiet yet inexpressible joy that manifested itself in a slight yet glowing smile which sustained itself throughout. Upon reflection all of these things helped me to experientially understand Joseph and the role of Joseph. I was in the limelight, and yet I gladly felt myself to be the man behind the scenes whose duty it was to redirect the spotlight on Mary and Jesus. Likewise with St. Joseph: he was in the limelight of the Christmas event, and yet he gladly felt himself to be the man behind the scenes whose duty it was to redirect the spotlight on the real Mary and Jesus.

It is worth mentioning again the fact that the director wanted us to return to the stage, because with the baby Jesus there by himself the scene was lacking. It’s as if God had orchestrated the play to happen exactly as it did, for does this not teach us a sublime lesson? Since just as the nativity scene looks lonesome and as though something is missing without Mary and Joseph; so too is the mystery of Christmas not complete without the whole Holy Family – Jesus and Mary and Joseph.

Keeping the Holy Family Together


Although many Christians rally against Marian devotion, never mind devotion to Joseph, by saying that such devotions take away and subtract from Jesus, this play demonstrated the complete opposite: that in fact Mary and Joseph were necessary in order to highlight and emphasise the importance of Jesus. Indeed, as was demonstrated in the play, by actually having Mary and Joseph out of the picture, the whole Christmas mystery is left incomplete like an unfinished painting. To take Mary and Joseph out of the mystery of Christmas is thus to despoil and take away from the baby Jesus. It takes the Holy Infant away from the context of a family, away from a human mother, and away from a human father. It fragments the Incarnation event, the taking on of a human nature by God – because by doing so we strip away the wholeness and beauty of the human context of the first chapters of Jesus’ life – and therefore we take away from the whole story of Jesus’ life!

In fact what taking Mary and Joseph away from not only the nativity scene does, but from one’s celebration of Christmas altogether, and from one’s devotional life, is to reduce the Infant God-Man to an abandoned orphan. What a lonely picture. And for the one who does so in their spiritual life: what a lonely baby Jesus in their soul.

Conclusion


By appreciating and understating Joseph and his role, especially in this mystery of Christmas, which we do by practicing true devotion to him, we come to understand how to adore Jesus, and how to shine the light perfectly on Him – and that is by honouring Mary and by directing our attention to Mary as well as to Jesus. Not only this, but through a true devotion to Joseph we slip into Joseph’s shoes, and thus become so close to Jesus, because we become so close to Mary. In his shoes we begin to see from his perspective, the perspective of a Virginal Husband who cherishes and esteems his Wife, and the perspective of a Father who adores and worships his Son. In Joseph’s shoes we are thus transported into the living room, the stable, and the locus of the Incarnation, which is the intimacy and limelight of the Holy Family. Here in this limelight beside and in Joseph, we learn how to reside in the shadow of self-forgetfulness as a man behind the scenes – who gives perfect honour to Mary, and perfect adoration to the Infant Jesus. As Banjo Patterson (1864 - 1941) writes in his poem 'Behind the Scenes':

You see it in another light
When once you've been behind the scenes.





[1] St. Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I, 11, 12: PL 44, 421; cf. De consensu evangelistarum, II, 1, 2: PL 34, 1071; Contra Faustum, III, 2: PL 42, 214.

[2] St. Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, I, 11, 13: PL 44, 421; cf. Contra Iulianum, V, 12, 46: PL 44, 810.

[3] Some interpret the verse “He took his wife, but knew her not until he she had borne a son” (Mt 1:25) to mean that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after Jesus was born. This is a false interpretation, as the Church teaches infallibly that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Not only this, but tradition states that Mary and Joseph both had made vows of virginity prior to marriage, and they sustained this vow throughout their marriage. Furthermore, Joseph was betrothed to Mary – different to our concept of engagement, since it’s more like phase one of actual marriage – and so when it says “knew her not” it means they were only married after Jesus was born, which was really phase two of their being married in the Jewish context.

[4] “In heaven there are angelic hierarchies… on earth there is a hierarchy of grace, and in that hierarchy are included various orders, or ministries, which, according to the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas, excel each other in proportion to their approximation to God. The highest of all these orders, whether angelic or human, is the order of the Hypostatic Union”. What is meant by Hypostatic Union is that indivisible union that unites the divine and human nature in the one Divine Person of the Word, a union taking place at the instance of His conception in Mary’s womb. The Order of the Hypostatic Union is that community of persons who were necessary in the Incarnation event, that is in the Hypostatic Union event. Thus “three only composed it – Jesus, Mary, Joseph.” Edward Healy Thompson, The Life and Glories of Saint Joseph, Burns and Oates, Limited: London, 1888, 5, 7.

[5] Isidore Isolani, Somma dei doni di San Giuseppe, 1522.

[6] Andrew Doze, Shadow of the Father, St. Pauls: New York, 1992, 145.

[7] Ibid.