Saint Joseph is one of the few biblical figures we know almost nothing about despite his pivotal role in salvation history. He utters not a single word; gives us nothing to understand his interior world.

As faithful husband to Mary and faithful earthly father to Jesus, he occupies a uniquely privileged position and yet, from our perspective as the reader, undergoes it silently. This silence of Joseph is something I find intriguing, as if Joseph refuses to press himself onto the page for us. As if he refuses to take the story away from the ones he is serving: the New Eve and the New Adam.

In this silence, though, there is a humble strength. Through the ages, the Church has recognised this humble strength through the various titles attributed to Saint Joseph. Joseph the Worker, yes, but there’s more: Terror of Demons. Pillar of Families. Protector of Holy Church. Light of Patriarchs. Mirror of Patience.

How do we understand this contrast between Joseph’s silence and the Church’s reverence for his spiritual strength?

I think Ignatius of Loyola can help us here. In his Spiritual Exercises there is what’s called the Meditation on Two Standards. These standards, or flags, are what the two spiritual armies march beneath: one with Christ as Lord and the other with the devil. Those who align themselves with the devil, he says, march beneath the banner of wealth, worldly honour and pride. Those who march under the banner of Christ, however, march under the sigils of poverty, worldly contempt and humility.[1]

It’s a remarkable meditation because it takes seriously the way in which Jesus redefined concepts that we take for granted. Concepts like power and authority. It takes seriously the way of life that is supposed to define us as disciples.

Think back to Matthews’s Gospel for a moment: the mother of two disciples comes to Jesus requesting they sit in places of authority in the coming kingdom. Jesus reprimands her by saying: ‘“You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No; anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave”’ (Matthew 20:24-28). Or, think back to John’s Gospel. After laying on thick the kind of authority Jesus has in the universe – ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God’ – John explicitly contrasts it with his next move: to bend low and wash the feet of his disciples in service. Because this was supposed to be the way of the disciples in the world – conquering it through humble service (John 13:2-5).

G.K. Chesterton can help us understand how this relates to Joseph. In his book on Saint Francis of Assisi, he says that the genius of Francis was that he began to see the world as God sees it: upside down.[2] To see the world upside down is to see it in its fragility and dependence. This is essentially how Chesterton approaches the Gospel and applies it to the Holy Family.

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton says that Christ’s revolution turned everything upside down, even the world’s smallest and most basic social unit of the family. The old ‘trinity’ of family order, he says, is ‘father and mother and child’, but the new trinity is that of ‘child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed.’[3]

Ever since I became a father in June of 2020 I’ve been reflecting on this weird upside down world that Jesus invites us into and what it means for me as a husband and father. There’s a lot of ideas circulating about what it means to be masculine, many of them caricatures. One of the beautiful things about Saint Joseph, I think, is that his silence speaks volumes. In his silence he tells us that the story is not about him but his child: Christ. In his silence he demonstrates that although very few of his deeds have been remembered, his role as husband and father is defined in part by its willingness to be forgotten; by humble service regardless of acknowledgement and remembrance and award.

Our social conscience has been formed quite powerfully by narratives of heroic people and heroic exploits. Those who ‘change the world’ are uniquely charismatic individuals who stand out in greatness against the mass of mundane and ordinary people. George Eliot has a passage in her novel Middlemarch that resists this beautifully:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’[4]

If the life of Saint Joseph is anything, it is un-historic. It is faithfully hidden. It is accompanied by an unvisited tomb.

In Dostoevsky’s novel Brothers Karamazov, there is a section that details some of the reflections and homilies of Father Zosima, a priest and mystic who really embodies so much of Eastern Orthodox – and Catholic – spirituality. I might finish with his words because they tie so much of this together better than I ever could. It’s worth quoting in full:

‘At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of men’s sins, asking yourself whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide: “I will combat it by humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you may be able to conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force, the strongest of all, and there is nothing like it.’[5]

Saint Joseph, pray for us that we may follow your example and conquer the world through humble love.

[1] The Spiritual Exercises (Meditation on two standards)

[2] Chesterton, G.K. Saint Francis of Assisi. Floating Press, 2009, 76.

[3] Chesterton, G.K., The Everlasting Man. Hodder & Stoughton, 1936, 55.

[4] Eliot, George, Middlemarch. London: Folio Society, 2008, 759.

[5] Dostoevsky, Fyoder, Brothers Karamazov. London: Folio Society, 2008, 309.