This Lenten season, before we take up the usual practices of not eating dark chocolate and drinking fine Bordeaux wine (which are certainly severe enough abstentions that one could have faithfully completed these as Lenten penances), perhaps we could use Lent as an opportunity to increase in learning and turn away from evil. In suggesting this and in keeping with the year of St. Joseph, we can turn to the man whom God called just and saw fit to be the guardian and protector of Christ and his mother. St. Joseph, the man to whom no words are attributed in Scripture, has much he can teach us about growing spiritually.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are introduced to the genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham and ending with Joseph, the husband of Mary. Shortly after, Matthew tells us that Mary “was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly” (Matt. 1:19). In the original Greek, “just,” also translated as “righteous,” is dikaios. In English, this word means “blameless,” “ability to increase in learning,” “turning away from evil,” “hating falsehood,” and “someone who walks in integrity.” Without going into each one, consider the definitions of “ability to learn” and “turning away from evil” in the broader consideration of Joseph as a righteous or just man.
To fully begin to comprehend the depths of the just man, as Scripture describes Joseph, it is always wise to turn to the Church Fathers and consider their thoughts. St. Jerome contends that Joseph would have been aware of a precept in the law that one who conceals a crime is guilty of sin. Joseph would have been aware of the unusual circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, and so considering her chastity, though feeling confused, “conceals in silence the mystery he did not know about” (Saint Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, p. 63).
St. Joseph’s righteousness is expressed by his observance of the law, especially in this instance (Deut. 22:23-27). In short, by exposing Mary as a betrothed virgin pregnant with a child not his own, Joseph would be signing Mary’s death warrant, to be carried out by stoning. The alternative is accepting Mary and the child as his and living with the condemnation of the community for not practicing chastity before bringing Mary into his home. For Joseph to respond by not exposing her to the law as he intends to, it would be necessary to have contemplated the law and to understand that compassion is at the heart of the law.
Pope Benedict XVI also provides an interpretation of this verse. Benedict says Joseph has “roots in the living waters of God’s word, and seeks to interpret and apply the law with love by seeking the path that brings law and love into a unity.” Benedict continues, “The designation of Joseph as a just man (zaddik) extends far beyond the decision he takes at this moment: it gives an overall picture of Saint Joseph and at the same time aligns him with the great figures of the Old Covenant-beginning with Abraham the just” (Jesus of Nazareth: Infancy Narratives, p. 39-40). Benedict’s interpretation is in line with that of St. John Chyrsostom, who instructs us to “observe the mercifulness of Joseph, that he imparted his suspicions to none, not even to her whom he suspected, but kept them within himself” (Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Volume I).
We see here a very common sin that Joseph, being a just man who contemplates the word of God avoids; the sin of calumny. Joseph does not know with certainty the mysterious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, yet he does not expose this mystery as if he knew details other than that the child was not his. He could have exposed her to the law in accordance with the letter of the law, but believing the best about Mary and taking counsel with contemplation of the law in unity with love, he patiently waits for God to speak to him to reveal the nature of the pregnancy and therefore his mission.
This Lenten season, we can begin by contemplating the beatitudes, in consultation with the Church Fathers, demonstrating a desire and an ability to learn. Secondly, in patience and prayer, take this to the Holy Spirit and allow him to reveal to us those times we have not thought or acted like St. Joseph, in keeping silent when we should and thinking the best about individuals especially in the midst of circumstances we do not fully understand. Thirdly, make a humble, honest, specific confession to admit our faults and then turn away from evil. Lastly, in continuing to contemplate the law day and night, live out the law of God in love ordered to unity, and like the quiet man from Nazareth, become guardians and protectors of Christ and his mother.