Joseph is known as the silent saint. Though his part in the story of Christ is not small—his is the royal line Jesus claims, his the profession Jesus adopts—he does not say a single word in any of the Gospels. This is something of a theme in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth: Zechariah struck silent in the temple and Joseph quietly considering how to proceed, while Mary and Elizabeth burst forth in prophetic utterance, early proclamations of the gospel.
But just because Joseph does not speak should not lead us to think that he is passive. Indeed, Joseph is presented to us as a man of decisive action emerging from a rich inner life. We are told that upon learning his wife-to-be is pregnant, he does not immediately break their engagement, subjecting her to public embarrassment and possibly much worse. Despite what any wounded fiancé in the fresh pain of apparent unfaithfulness might be tempted to do, Joseph instead forms a merciful and wise plan.
The only character description we are given of Joseph is that he is “faithful to the law” (v. 19). So, without publicizing Mary’s situation to anyone (as far as we are told), he decides on a plan that is both faithful to the law and gracious to Mary. All this he comes to privately, and we can only assume painfully, and all his pain and his generosity remain beneath the surface. The silent saint has a virtue that simmers beneath the surface, where his self-control in the face of being wronged restrains him and allows him not only to forbear but also protect Mary, the source of his pain.
And as with many people who have made fraught decisions within themselves, something bubbles up for Joseph from even deeper beneath the surface: a dream, and with it an angel. This dream must have come as a comfort, an assurance, and with a good deal of confusion. All this is not recorded. Only that Joseph, who was faithful to the law, the Word of the Lord, was faithful to this word from the angel. Within himself once again he resolves to act, without any outpouring of prophetic speech. He let people think that he, a thoughtful and self-controlled man, had gotten her pregnant with child in a moment of lapsed self-control. He took Mary’s shame onto himself, perhaps foreshadowing what Jesus would do for all humankind. And all this he did without saying a word.
Ours is a world drowning in words. In Joseph, the silent saint, I see a different way of being—a way of silence and action, where sometimes the most important words are the ones we don’t speak.
Joy Clarkson is a writer, editor and doctoral candidate in theology. She is the Books and Culture editor at Plough.
This article is part of The Eternal King Arrives, a 4-week devotional to help individuals, small groups, and families journey through the 2023 Advent season . Learn more about this special issue that can be used Advent, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/advent.
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