Advent Figures: Joseph the Inadequate

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

“I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me…for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). In this famous passage, Saint Paul gives expression to a fundamental principle of the Christian life.  Now the Apostle may have been the first to articulate it, but Saint Joseph was the first man to live it.

It may seem inappropriate, perhaps even impious, to talk about the “weaknesses” of Saint Joseph. There is, after all, a great need to praise his virtue and strengths. Especially in our culture, which demeans the nobility of being a husband, father, and worker, we need to grow in our estimation of this saint. He is so often hidden, passed over or, worse, depicted as present but ineffectual – the old man shuffling along with Jesus and Mary.

And yet in our zeal to praise his virtue, we risk making Joseph not a just man but just a man. Strong, noble, pure, and kind – but still, just a man. It is reliance on grace, not natural goodness, that makes a man a Christian, and a saint. And the experience of our weakness – as Saint Paul discovered – prompts us to that reliance.

Obviously, the kind of weakness here is not moral weakness, not sinful behavior or flawed character, not vice or foibles. Rather, it is weakness in the sense of insufficiency, of being inadequate, unequal to the task. Joseph’s duty, after all, was not merely to do but to be – to be husband to the Virgin Mother and father to the Incarnate Word. No man, of course, is equal to that task. And throughout his mission, Joseph receives reminders of his inadequacy…as if Someone is trying to keep him dependent on grace.

Joseph first tries to acquit himself of the marriage because of his unworthiness to be Mary’s spouse. Then in Bethlehem, he cannot find decent lodging for his wife to give birth. He can only provide a stable for his wife and newborn Son. At our Lord’s circumcision, Joseph senses the superfluousness of his actions – providing covenental ceremonies for the st_joseph_the_carpenterOne Who established the covenant. Likewise at the Presentation he redeems the One Who not only needs no redemption but Who is Himself the Redeemer. On that same occasion, Joseph hears prophecy of the sufferings to befall his wife and child – and rightly intuits his inability to protect them. Later, he cannot defend his wife and child and so flees to Egypt. On return, he cannot return to his own town. And as if to add insult to injury, the last recorded event of Joseph’s ministry to the Holy Family is his loss of the child Jesus.

At every step, Joseph finds himself inadequate to the task at hand. Now, a lesser man would react poorly to these experiences. He would respond perhaps peevishly – throwing up his hands in despondency or stamping his feet in frustration: “It’s not fair!”  Or he might ignore the signs of his limitations and vainly try to assert himself, raging against his weakness, trying to be strong – kicking against the goads, as it was described to Saul of Tarsus (cf. Acts 26:14).

Indeed, most of us, when face-to-face with our own inadequacy, either despair about it or rage against it. Our discouragement – What’s the point…It’s no use…I give up – depresses those around us and calls into question our confidence in God. Our futile assertiveness, on the other hand, frustrates us even more and makes us unbearable to those around us.

In Joseph, we find the proper, the Christian response. Scripture and Tradition both give the sense of Joseph’s quiet, peaceful resignation – finding in his weakness an opportunity to lean more on God’s strength. He does not buckle or rebel in the face of his insufficiency. Rather, he turns such occasions into an opportunity to trust in God’s power.  By trusting in God’s strength rather than his own he taps into the proper source of true fatherhood.

This trust in the face of inadequacy shows Joseph to be truly the Light of Patriarchs and Renowned Offspring of David. Saint Matthew establishes Joseph in the line of the patriarchs by tracing our Lord’s genealogy from Abraham to Joseph. But Joseph shows himself a true son of Abraham, a true patriarch, not by mere bloodline but by his trust. Abraham confidently said, “God will provide” as he ascended Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son (cf. Gen 22:8). Joseph displays that same confidence in every instance of his weakness. And as David went out against Goliath trusting not in his humble slingshot and stones but “in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” (cf. 1 Sam 17:45), so Joseph, son of David, knows that the battle is the Lord’s, and He will be victorious.

Looking in the other direction of salvation history, Joseph sets the example for his Son’s disciples. Indeed, in his trust that God will work through human weakness, he is the first man to follow his Son. Saint Peter learned this lesson later. By hard experience and bitter tears, he saw that his strength was not enough to remain faithful, that God’s grace alone could strengthen him to walk on water, to remain faithful and, eventually, to die a martyr. He first had to acknowledge his weakness and receive that grace. Likewise Saint Paul – a confident man, if ever there was one – learned through painful prayer that his weakness was no cause for despair but rather an occasion for trusting and encountering God’s strength. Centuries later another Joseph would take comfort in the fact that “the Lord knows how to work and to act even with inadequate instruments” (Pope Benedict XVI, Urbi et Orbi, April 19, 2005).

And we today learn the lesson again and again – that our weakness is no cause for discouragement, still less for rebellion. Our insufficiency occasions greater reliance on the Lord. Before all of us came Saint Joseph, as an example. The quiet, humble, hidden, and, indeed, inadequate man who trusted that the Lord’s strength is made perfect in weakness, who allowed his weakness to be transformed into strength.

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