Saint Joseph is a silent figure in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, but between the lines is found volumes of spiritual meaning and theological truth.
In a post a few months ago – “How Father Benedict Groeschel Entered My Darkest Night” – I described an awful dream. I use the word “awful” in its fuller sense. The dream was filled with awe, and not only for me, but for some who read of it. I am no dreamer. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting that a dream might communicate to me something other than the random firing of neurons during REM sleep. I have noticed, however, that the words “random” and “coincidence” have a much reduced presence in my vocabulary of late.
Many months after having that dream, it stays with me while most others are long forgotten. It returns to me in times of trial while most other dreams seem useless. It brings me peace, and it challenges me with an essential truth that suffering is bearable when given meaning. Back to that thought in a moment.
Some dreams are Earth-shaking, and I had another that came just before a recent downturn in our day-to-day life in prison. I seem to have my pivotal dreams around 3:00 AM, and sometimes they wake me up. This one is worth asking you to bear with me before I get to the point.
It was early in the morning of October 2nd, the Feast of the Guardian Angels. In the dream, I awoke and got out of bed to stare out my cell window. There was someone standing with me, someone older in the wiser sense, familiar but indistinct, as though I were seeing him through foggy glasses. He asked me, “What do you see” I told that him I see only prison lights. He said, “Look deeper, with your other eyes. Look beyond the prison lights.”
As I looked more deeply, three stars appeared to form a perfect triangular constellation. In the dream, the companion asked me, “What do you see within it?” I looked more deeply still, and saw a very faint and distant glow of light. “It looks like neon,” I said. Then I saw that the faint glow surrounded the three stars of the constellation. “Michael dwells within the light,” he said.
Then I was in bed lying awake for what I thought was the second time. I thought the experience really happened, and I wondered who it was that had been standing with me. Because it fell on a Sunday this year, I did not note the significance of the date – it was October 2nd – until later in the day. I stood at 3:05 AM staring out my cell window. My friend, Pornchai Moontri awoke in his upper bunk and asked what I was looking at. I told him that I saw a triangle of stars, but it might have been a dream. “Oh, here we go again!” he said.
The dream has stayed with me, and especially the words, “Look beyond the prison lights.” The next day when I went to work in the prison library, I found a book on the constellations. It contained star charts so I studied them carefully. I found a tiny constellation – tiny because it is very distant – called Triangulum visible at the edges of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Its three stars form a perfect triangle.
Then I wrote to a friend and asked him to send me some Internet information about the Constellation, Triangulum. He sent me a 1998 science report from The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The article described “the spectral signature of a faint galaxy,” the most distant galaxy ever found. Dubbed Galaxy RD1, it is 12.2 light years from Earth, located from Earth’s perspective behind another galaxy in the constellation Triangulum. It is at the edge of the known universe, among the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang. The 1998 discovery within Triangulum looks upon the birth of the most distant matter ever seen from the expansion out of the moment of Creation.
The Constellation Triangulum is identical to the triangle of stars in my dream, but the words of my fellow star gazer that morning were strange and mystical: “Michael dwells within the light.”
In the Creation account of Genesis, “God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). Saint Augustine wrote in the fifth century that this passage depicts the moment the angels fell. In the Book of Revelation (12:7-9). Michael was the instrument of separating darkness from the light. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls – the Milhamâ from Qumran Cave 1 – identifies Michael as the “Prince of Light” who leads the angelic hosts against the spirits of darkness.
That brief dream of a guardian angel’s visit in the night turns out to be packed with meaning that had to be mined from its murky depths. So is the Gospel proclamation for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The account of the Birth of the Messiah begins with Joseph’s dream, the first of three dreams in which he is called to specific action by “an Angel of the Lord.”
There are 126 references to dreams among the characters of Sacred Scripture. Some of the pivotal moments in Salvation History are communicated through those dreams. I use the present tense, “are” because the Word of the Lord is still communicating with us, and comes to life vividly in the first of Joseph’s dreams. The words are few, but they are packed with meaning, first for Joseph, then for the Evangelist, then especially for the Scripture which is for us, the believers:
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son. You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-24)
In the original Greek of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the term used for Joseph’s dream (1:20) is rare among the Biblical references to dreams. In Greek, it is the word ’ónar, and it is found only in Matthew, and only in reference to the dreams of Joseph. It refers to a divine intervention in human affairs.
Coupled with the fact that the method of delivery comes from an “Angel of the Lord,” then the scene takes on a sort of urgency distinct from other angelic messages. The term, “Angel of the Lord,” appears only a few times in the Hebrew Scriptures – our Old Testament – and in the New Testament, only in the Gospel of Matthew in Joseph’s dreams, and once in Acts of the Apostles.
The urgency is based upon the previous verses in Matthew, the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. The Evangelist presents a detailed account tracing the lineage of Joseph as coming from that of King David. As a descendant of King David, Joseph will impart to Jesus by adoption the royal line of the Davidic kingdom.
Matthew’s original Greek addresses Jewish Christians in the regions outside of Jerusalem. Hence Matthew is the sole source of the Hebrew name for Jesus – “Emmanuel” – meaning. “God with us.” There is a very important and very rich symbolism in this account. It explains the urgency that the Angel of the Lord must set right through Joseph’s dream. Upon the discovery that Mary was with child, Joseph resolved to send her away quietly. This would break from his royal connection by adoption with the lineage of David, and it would break with God’s plan.
The Biblical translation used for liturgical texts in the United States is the New American Bible which translates Joseph’s decision in regard to Mary: “Joseph… since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, which uses the Revised Standard Version (RSV) captures the context more accurately: “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.”
It’s very important to understand the nuance here. What makes Joseph, and any Jewish man, a “just man” in the eyes of the Jews and our Jewish-Christian Evangelist – and in the ears of his hearers – is his obedience to the Law of Moses. Catholic tradition proposes three theories about why Joseph resolved to send Mary away quietly rather than expose her to the law that he must obey.
The first of these is the “suspicion theory.” Despite it being held by no less than Saint Augustine himself, I think it’s the weakest of the three. This theory presents that Joseph, like most men of his time might do, suspected that Mary had been unfaithful in their betrothal, and thus felt compelled to invoke the law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to impose a bill of divorce “because he has found some indecency in her.” In this dubious theory, Joseph holds this view until the Angel of the Lord sets him straight and alters his course.
The second theory is the ‘perplexity theory’ ‘proposed by Saint Jerome. In this, Joseph could not bring himself to suspect Mary of infidelity, so the predicament left him in perplexity, deciding to send her away in charity and in order to protect her. In this, the “Angel of the Lord” redirected his path with news that Joseph already suspected. This is the theory that prevailed in notations in the medieval Bible.
The third is the “reverence theory.” It proposed that Joseph knew all along the divine origin of the child in Mary’s womb, but considered himself to be unworthy of her and of involvement with this child. He decided to send her away to protect the mystery and secret from exposure to the letter of the law. This was the view held by Saint Thomas Aquinas.
THE FIRSTBORN OF ALL CREATION
In any case, the task of the intervention from the Angel of the Lord is to redirect Joseph’s decision in order to preserve the symbolic value of King David’s lineage being legally passed on to Jesus through adoption. The symbolism in this is immensely powerful. This adoption and the establishment of kingship in the human realm of Salvation History reflects the establishment of adoption in the spiritual realm.
Remember that the title “King of the Jews” is one of the charges for which Jesus faced the rejection of Israel and the merciless justice of Rome. There is great irony in this. Through his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus ratifies the adoption between God and those Jesus has freed. Jesus, King of the Jews becomes Christ the King, and we become the heirs to that Kingdom.
I touched upon this in my recent post, “Giving Thanks in the Time of Christ the King.” It’s very difficult to imagine the child born in Bethlehem impaled upon the Cross of Golgotha, but He left this world just as innocent as He came into it, and through this sacrifice won an inheritance for us. This is why Saint Paul presents the image of Jesus on the Cross in this way:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… All things were created through him and in him. He is before all things, and in him all things bind together. He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that primacy may be his in everything.” (Colossians 1:15-18)
There has been a lot of media coverage lately about an upcoming Martin Scorcese film debut called Silence to be released just before Christmas this year. The film is widely acclaimed, but also heart wrenching and controversial. Silence is based on a novel of the same name by the great Japanese novelist, Shusaku Endo. I wrote of the book in a post some years ago on These Stone Walls entitled, of all things, “What Do John Wayne and Pornchai Moontri Have In Common?”
It’s a post about conversion, but my reference to Shusaku Endo’s book, Silence (Momenta Nippokika 1969) is worth reading if you plan to see the film. It’s the story of 16th Century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, and their heroic effort to save souls while placing their own lives in great danger. In the book, and in a promotional trailer from the film, one of the Jesuit priests lying in near despair in the dark asks of God, “Are You out there? Why are You so silent?” The desperate question has been asked of God through all the ages of man.
The silence of Joseph reflects the silence of God, but it speaks volumes between the lines for those with ears to hear. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, but Joseph’s silence reflects the face of God. His preservation of the inheritance of the kingdom of David through the adoption of Jesus is a mirror image of God’s preservation of our inheritance of Heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus, and the adoption of us.
God is not silent. His voice is to be found in sacrifice. As Saint Maximilian Kolbe wrote, “There can be no love without sacrifice.” No one can fathom this, and then ask God to speak any louder.