On Saint Joseph and Epiphany

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of The Epiphany, 2019.

This afternoon my family and I drove over to Peoria to visit the Arthur family at Methodist hospital, of course on the occasion of the birth of William Fulton Tanner Arthur. I said to my wife on the drive over, it is like we are the Magi, going to visit the new child and pay homage. I suppose I should add that we did not bow down before young William—such worship is reserved only for our King, Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of the Father. But I did offer him a blessing, to add to the blessing of being born on Epiphany. I will also add that, as is the case in any birth, the glory of the Lord, following Isaiah’s words, was upon us—every baby brings such light, along with the mystery of God’s energies in the world burning particularly brightly.

We are told by Saint Matthew that after meeting Herod, the Magi saw again the leading star—that they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. The birth of Christ sent shock waves of joy in every direction for those with ears to hear it. And, we are told, going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His Mother, and the fell down and worshiped Him. It is significant to us that the first vision of the King of the Universe was bound up with that of His Mother. With Jesus comes His Mother who presents Him: and, likewise, with God, comes His Church which presents the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Falling down in worship, the Magi opened their treasures and offered Him gifts—the Magi model how to properly worship: at the feet of Christ on His Throne, we fall to our knees and open the treasure of our heart, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God. When we give God our heart, our offering is greater than all the world’s gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And then notice, brothers and sisters, who is not named as being present during this holy moment. Mary, Jesus, the Magi, even the Star of Bethlehem—these are all named as present. But one important person is not named. Of all people, Joseph! He is not named as being present. Also, to be precise; it is not that he is said to be elsewhere. Matthew does not tell us that Mary and Jesus are receiving the Magi while Joseph is off doing carpentry in Damascus or some such place; we are not told he is off getting groceries or diapers.

It is quite odd to wonder why Joseph is not mentioned at least by Matthew. The passage right before and right after the Magi episode not only have Joseph present but focus on Joseph, and even are about the angelic revelations given to Joseph by Gabriel. Before the Magi episode comes Gabriel’s encouraging words “Do not fear to take Mary your wife,” for Joseph had wondered whether, knowing that Mary’s pregnancy was of divine intervention, to protect her from cultural embarrassment and even shunning, perhaps she ought be sent away quietly. Angel said, “No, she will bear a son, and you shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” And then after the Magi go home by another way—because any true encounter with God changes the direction of our journey—again it is Gabriel back again, this time to warn Joseph, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.” Two major moments of angelic revelation centered on Joseph, and yet why is Joseph not described as being there when the Magi worship?

But what if Joseph was there at the visit by the Magi, and Matthew’s silence about it is to make an important point? It is certainly possible this is the case—again, Matthew does not say Joseph is somewhere else, and the overall tendency of Matthew’s account at this point is for Joseph to be central to God’s activity. So, what if Joseph is there, but does not speak or do anything particularly out of the ordinary? What would be the purpose of Matthew writing this way?

It occurs to me firstly that, interpreted this way, it mirrors or recapitulates the episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden. For recall that although Adam is in the Garden with Eve, of course preceded her in the Garden, while Eve is being tempted by the Serpent, Adam is no where to be found. Did Adam go away, like Joseph go away? Or did Adam buckle under the pressure of the Serpent’s temptation and, scared, delegate dealing with the serpent all to Eve? I prefer that reading because it emphasizes the dignity and fortitude of Eve, and the lameness of Adam, his weakness.

And so consider the Magi episode. Joseph is present while Mary and Joseph receive the Magi. And as they do, Joseph watches silently as the Magi’s gifts become a kind of temptation to Mary to think herself esteemed and special: I mean, frankincense and myrrh: great. But all the gold! In addition to Mary thinking, “We are rich! Joseph, you can retire now!” she might be tempted to think it is all about her; that the Magi worship of the Child means she can boast of herself. And so unlike Adam’s silence, which allows Eve to be tricked by the Serpent, Joseph’s silence pays tribute to Mary and to God, because Joseph knows Mary is too humble, too self-effacing, too focused on sacrifice and praise to God at all times and in all places to give into any of that. All of this fits the portrait of Joseph that we have: caught up in the divine activity of God through Mary, utterly humble towards God and trusting of Mary, and a permanent witness that everything having to do with Jesus is of divine origin, divine plan, and divine ordering: the Church, the seven Sacraments, all ordered not by the hands of man, but by the hands of God. Let us, brothers and sisters, behold along with Saint Joseph, the unfathomable wonder of God, of the Word made flesh for us, for our nourishment, and for our salvation.