Joseph’s Singular Faith
July 17, 2021 • 9 min
There are two perfections which we are called upon specially to admire in Joseph: his most singular faith and his eminent supernatural wisdom. These were two rays, as it were, of the Divine understanding descending into the mind of Joseph.
God endowed him with the most lively faith which any saint ever received—always excepting the great Mother of God—and this alone merited for him the title of “just,” as a great Cardinal has observed.
Again, what light must he have possessed to believe, simply on hearing the few words which the angel spoke, more mysteries than had been proposed in the course of many centuries to all the ancient Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament! We are so accustomed to the Gospel narrative that, perhaps, we have never sufficiently realised St. Joseph’s merit in this matter. Yet, as we have observed, what the Evangelists do not say is as full of meaning as what they do say.
St. Matthew tells us how the angel said to Joseph, “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; and she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins”; but what he does not tell us is that Joseph uttered a word in reply or asked a single question.
Yet in this sleep of his there were revealed to our saint the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, and Reconciliation of man to God. He was called to believe that a Virgin should become a mother, and that the son she had conceived was God Himself; that this child was to deliver his people, not, as his countrymen all expected, from the dominion of the Romans, but from the slavery of sin and the tyranny of the devil.
In fine, he was required to believe all these mysteries as contained in the angel’s message to him, and on his testimony alone, without any miraculous guarantee that he spoke on the part of God. Oh, the sublime faith of Joseph! “O holy and just Joseph,” exclaims an illustrious Cardinal, “who didst believe at once, and most firmly, so many, so new, and so unheard-of things!” Thou didst despoil thyself of thy own lights, to submit thy spirit to the word of an angel, penetrating, in an instant, and at their first announcement to thee, so many and such deep truths. Thou neededst not the stimulus of miracles, which have been so necessary in order to lead other men to humble their souls and take upon them the yoke of the faith; neither wast thou won thereto by the knowledge which we now possess, that for ages since the coming of the Messias so many nations and countless souls have embraced it. All this weight of evidence thou didst lack, but for the assurance of thy faith thou didst ask no greater pledge or proof than Heaven was pleased to grant thee.
We have in Holy Scripture no instance of faith equal to that of Joseph. Compare Gedeon’s behaviour when an angel came to tell him, in the name of the Lord, that he should deliver Israel out of the hand of Madian. That “most valiant of men” required more than one miraculous sign, and those of his own selection, both to ascertain who it was that spoke to him, and also to encourage him to lead the people forth to battle.
And this defect of perfect faith we meet with, not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Some great saints who lived in the times of Jesus and of His Apostles exhibited weakness of this character. Zachary has the testimony of the Evangelist that he “walked in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame,” still he required something more than an angel’s word to believe that his wife should bear a son in her old age.
Yet he might have called to mind that such a miracle was not without precedent, since God had vouchsafed a similar boon to Abraham, the father of the faithful, and to his wife, Sara. What comparison, therefore, could there be between the demand made upon Zachary’s faith and that which was required of Joseph? Moreover, the angel spoke to Joseph only in his sleep, while to Zachary he solemnly appeared while engaged in the holy functions of his office, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Yet he doubted, and said, “Whereby shall I know this?”
Ananias was bidden, not by an angel, but by the Lord Himself, in a vision, to go and restore his sight to Saul of Tarsus; yet so alarmed was he at the very sound of the fierce persecutor’s name that he ventured on a remonstrance, telling the Lord,—almost, one might say, as if He who knoweth all things was not fully acquainted with the circumstances or hardly appreciated the danger of the commission He was giving him,—how much evil this man had done to His saints at Jerusalem, and how he had received authority at Damascus to bind all who should invoke His Name; and it was necessary for the Lord to reiterate His command and assure His faltering servant how Saul was a vessel of election before he did His bidding.
Scripture, often sparing of details, is always particular in giving us word for word the objections and difficulties made by servants of God to divine intimations and commands, whether through slowness of faith or lack of courage. The absence, therefore, in the case of Joseph, upon every such occasion, of all reply or even request for explanation is full of significance; a significance which we are bound to notice, because it is meant that we should do so.
Joseph always believed without hesitation; and this, not because what was proposed to his belief was easy, or that this great saint did not possess a mind capable of perceiving the profundity and the difficulties of the mysteries declared to him; far from it. Joseph was gifted with a mind of large capacities, which he had cultivated and fortified during his whole life by meditation on heavenly things.
He also obeyed without remonstrance or delay; and this, not because the commands laid upon him involved nothing arduous in their execution: witness his rising in the middle of the night to flee into Egypt, and asking none of those questions which human prudence would have suggested before encountering the many privations, sufferings, and dangers of such a journey, not for himself alone, but for the two persons whom he loved incomparably more than he loved himself.
And how are we to account for all this? How is it that on the angel proposing to him things so hard to believe and difficult to execute, and Joseph being fully competent to perceive all that was apparently incredible in the promises of Heaven and startling in the orders conveyed to him, nevertheless he behaved as if the fullest demonstration had convinced his understanding, and the most complete experience or acquired knowledge had smoothed all the seeming obstacles which stood in the way of obedience?
It is because this admirable saint had received from God the most excellent gift of faith, and because his mind was penetrated with the rays of that supernatural light which causes us to adhere to all that God has revealed to us.
It was because he lived a life of light on earth, so that in him faith, in itself obscure, was associated with an illumination so brilliant that it resembled that light of glory which fills the understandings of the Blessed in Heaven.
The Fathers of the Church are frequent in their admiration of Joseph’s undoubting faith. St. Irenaeus, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, as well as others, might all be quoted to this effect.
St. Anselm (or the author who goes by his name) has a pleasing and ingenious remark as to why, when the angel bade Joseph return into the land of Israel, he did not give him fuller directions. It was, he says, because he desired to have to return to speak to him again. It was a pleasure to this exalted spirit to witness the greatness of Joseph’s faith and the submission of his spirit to all the revelations of Heaven.
St. Augustine, perhaps above all, gives the highest commendation to the faith of Joseph when he compares it to that of our Lady herself, whom her cousin, St. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost, addressed as “blessed art thou who hast believed”.
(For quote references, see the book page linked to above.)
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