The exalted dignity of St. Joseph
Jul 19th, 2021 • 14 min
The dignity of St. Joseph. St Joseph is exalted above all God’s Saints; and ranks next to the Blessed Virgin Mary herself.
The dignity of a Saint may be estimated from the designs of God in his regard; from his relations with the Almighty, and from the place destined for him to fulfil in the scheme of Redemption.
Thus in the Old Law, Abraham is elevated on a high pinnacle of sanctity because he was destined to be the father of God’s people; Moses is regarded as a great Saint, because he was chosen by God to give the Divine Law to the Jews; Melchisedech is honoured, because his sacrifice was a figure of the great sacrifice of the New Law; King David, the model of the repentant sinner, is singled out for special honours, because God inspired him to sing His praises in hymns and canticles.
In the New Law, the twelve Apostles are held up to the admiration and veneration of the world; and why? Because of the dignity of the Apostolate; because they were chosen by God to be the preachers of His Word, and the foundation stones of His Church.
St. Peter is raised pre-eminently above the other Apostles; because Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ chose him to be the rock on which He built His Church; because he was the divinely appointed head of the Sacred College; and because on him and his lawful successor, the Saviour of the world conferred the unique privilege of Infallibility in teaching the Universal Church.
St. John the Baptist is held in special honour by the Church, and was sanctified in his mother’s womb, because his mission was to point out to the world the long-expected Messias—“Behold the Lamb of God.”
The dignity, and hence the sanctity of the Blessed Virgin, were unspeakably exalted beyond that of all the Saints and Angels put together, as the learned Suarez teaches; because her relations with God were of a higher order, and because she entered more fully and intimately into the scheme of man’s Redemption. No relationship is nearer to a son than that of mother.
Jesus Christ is the Son of Mary; the Sacred Body of Jesus, the Precious Blood by which mankind was redeemed, had their source in the Immaculate Heart of Mary. To use the words of St. Augustine, “The flesh of Christ is the flesh of Mary; and although it was raised to greater glory in His Resurrection; yet it still remained the same that was taken from her.”
The essence of the dignity of the Blessed Virgin consists in her intimate relation with the Saviour of the world, in the one title, Mother of God. “It is this awful title,” writes Cardinal Newman, “which both illustrates and connects together the two prerogatives of Mary—her sanctity and her greatness. It is the issue of her sanctity; it is the source of her greatness.
“What dignity can be too great to attribute to her who is so closely bound up, as intimately with the Eternal Word, as a mother is with her son? What outfit of sanctity, what fulness and redundance of grace, what exuberance of merit, must have been hers, on the supposition that the Fathers justify, that her Maker regarded them at all, and took them into account when He condescended not to abhor the Virgin’s womb. …
“Is it surprising, then, that on the one hand she should be Immaculate in her Conception; or on the other, that she should be exalted as a queen with a crown of twelve stars? Men sometimes wonder that we call her ‘Mother of life,’ ‘of mercy,’ ‘of salvation;’ what are all these titles compared to that one name, ‘Mother of God.’?” (Letter to Dr. Pusey on Eirenicon, p 67.)
We now come to examine what was the dignity of St. Joseph. With the above fundamental principles before our mind we hesitate not in asserting that St. Joseph was exalted in dignity above any Saint of the Old or New Testament: of course the Blessed Virgin alone excepted. And why? Because his heavenly appointed mission was of a higher order; because his relation with the Redeemer of the world was more close and intimate; and, finally, because he played a more important part than other Saints in the scheme of man’s Redemption.
Let us first try to conceive, and to realise the exalted dignity of St. Joseph from his relation to the Blessed Virgin, that is, “Husband of Mary.” The Blessed Virgin, by the title of Mother of God, is exalted unspeakably above all beings created, or that ever will be created, by the Almighty; St. Joseph, by the inspiration of heaven, was chosen to be the spouse of the Blessed Virgin; and therefore in a certain sense he shares in all her glories and dignity. Mary, as real wife, was the flesh of his flesh and the bone of his bone; and, as the husband is head of the wife, so St. Joseph in that sense was the head of the Blessed Virgin.
A few passages from Saints, and other celebrated writers, will tell more eloquently the dignity of St. Joseph, as Spouse of Mary, than our cold words.
St. Leonard of Port-Maurice writes: “The Evangelists say very little of the virtues and life of St. Joseph; but when they call him the Spouse of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, they give him the most glorious title possible; for he was nearest in every way to Mary, the purest creature ever made by God Almighty.”
St. John Damascene says: “Husband of Mary! ineffable expression, which leaves nought to say.” “Husband of Mary,” writes the learned Suarez; “this, therefore, was his first great prerogative.”
One passage more from the celebrated Gerson, the panegyrist of St. Joseph, who thus spoke of our Saint at the Council of Constance: “Let me here exclaim, O Joseph, how wonderful thy sublimity! O incomparable dignity that the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, the Mistress of the world, should not disdain, O great St. Joseph, to call thee lord. Truly, I know not, O orthodox Fathers, which is most admirable here—the humility of Mary, or the dignity of Joseph.”
Though the dignity of St. Joseph, as husband of Mary, guardian of the purest and holiest creature that ever came from the hands of the Almighty Creator, is great and exalted; yet far greater still, and transcendently more exalted is the dignity of our Saint, from his intimate relation with Jesus, the Saviour of the world.
As we have seen in a preceding chapter, the two Evangelists trace the genealogy of Our Blessed Lord, not from the Blessed Virgin, but through St. Joseph, as head of the house and family. “And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt. i. 16). “And Jesus Himself was beginning about the age of thirty years, being (as was supposed) the Son of Joseph” (Luke, iii. 23). Thus the two Evangelists begin their Gospel, by elevating St. Joseph on a high pinnacle of dignity and glory.
But the most instructive measure of the dignity of St. Joseph, is the fact that he was styled, and passed among men, as the Father of Jesus the Saviour of the world! “And Jesus Himself,” says the Gospel, “was beginning about the age of thirty years being (as was supposed) the Son of Joseph” (Luke iii. 23). Again, “his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning them. … And his parents went every year to Jerusalem … behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” (Luke, ii.)
The dignity of being the real husband of Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God is high indeed; but unspeakably higher still is the dignity of being the reputed father of Jesus Christ.
St. Bernard puts it thus: “The nature and dignities of St. Joseph are summed up in the title wherewith God honoured him, in such a way that all styled him and believed him to be the father of Jesus.”
The dignity of St. Joseph ascends higher and higher still, and becomes, so to speak, lost to our view, the more we meditate on his mission, and on his relation with Our Blessed Saviour.
St. John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb, because his mission was to point out to mankind the Saviour; but St. Joseph was appointed by God to be the guardian and protector of the Infant Redeemer.
After the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph was the first on earth that adored and paid homage to the Incarnate Son of God. St. Joseph ministered to the wants of Jesus even before He was born, by his care and attention to His Blessed Mother.
During the Divine Infancy, the hands of St. Joseph were privileged to supply the want and comforts of Jesus and Mary. When danger and death hovered round the cradle of the Infant Saviour St. Joseph was chosen by God to be His guardian and deliverer.
Countless times did St. Joseph carry in his arms, and press to his bosom, the Divine Babe. From the Nativity of Jesus, to the day of St. Joseph’s death, our Saint moved and lived in the Divine presence of the Incarnate Son of God.
These privileges were granted to no other Saint. Nay more, the Gospel says, that Jesus obeyed and was subject to St. Joseph. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph composed the Holy Family; and. St. Joseph was head of the Holy Family.
After Mary, no relation could be more intimate with Jesus than that of St. Joseph; and hence, after the Immaculate Mother of God, the dignity of St. Joseph is higher and more exalted than that of any other Saint of the Old or New Testament.
A devout Client of St. Joseph writes thus: “It is commonly said that the first-born, and the first in any order—for example, the first man, the first martyr, the first Apostle, the first Angel—enjoys certain advantages in glory over others who have not the priority.
“St. Joseph was the first man who knew and adored Jesus Christ; the first who spoke to Him; the first who suffered hardship and exile for Jesus; the first Apostle who manifested the Saviour to the world, and announced Him in Egypt; the first who made a vow or profession of virginity; the first Christian; the first by whom Jesus was offered to His Eternal Father in the Temple; the first to whom was manifestly revealed the Mystery of the Incarnation, hidden for centuries.
“St. Joseph was the first-born of the Church, and for this reason the first in gifts, and the greatest in authority and power, like Ruben, to whom his father Jacob left at his death the greatest part of his inheritance. All these advantages of having been the first, give St. Joseph so many degrees of preeminence among the Saints, and all but render his grandeur infinite. Combined with that of his most holy spouse, they form an order and a hierarchy exceeding all the blessed.
“Finally St. Joseph was the first defender of the virginal purity of the Mother of God.” (Vallejo, p. 251.)
Some may object to us the sublime eulogium paid to St. John the Baptist by Our Blessed Saviour Himself. “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.” (Matt. ii. 11). Now, in the first place, if this text were taken in its strictest sense, it would prove that St. John was as great and holy as the Blessed Virgin, nay, as our Divine Lord Himself; for both were born of women. Therefore the sense of necessity must be limited, and hence we assert the text does not include the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
We may here remark that St. Jerome and many other Fathers hold that the comparison was between St. John and the Saints of the Old Law only. The Saviour exalted the Baptist above the Prophets: his office was of a higher order: the Prophets foretold the coming of the Messias; the Baptist pointed Him out to men saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
The mission of St. Joseph, as we have already said, transcended that of the great Baptist, as well as that of the Prophets and Apostles. St. Joseph was the reputed father of Jesus; he saved the very life of the Saviour of the world; he watched over His Sacred infancy; countless times he carried Jesus in his arms, and pressed the Redeemer to his bosom; and during his life by the labour of his hands he supplied the wants and comforts of the Holy Family.
True also that in the Litany of the Saints, which forms a part of the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, St. John the Baptist is invoked before St. Joseph; but precedency in the order of the Litany does not imply greater excellence or merit. For instance, the Patriarchs and Prophets are invoked before St. Peter; yet who will deny that St. Peter the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Prince of the Apostles, the Head of the Church, was a greater Saint, and had a higher mission than the Patriarchs and Prophets. In like manner, greater, higher, and holier was the Mission of St. Joseph, and unspeakably more intimate his union with Jesus Christ than that of St. John the Baptist.
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