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Loads have been written about St. Joseph that discuss at length his humility and his holiness as the foster father of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary's spouse. But lamentably, little has been written about St. Joseph's discretion — that is, his keeping close to his heart throughout his entire life what God was doing through his "adopted" Son, Jesus Our Lord, and through his wife, the Blessed Mother Mary.
Most of us have been charged at one time or another with the responsibility of keeping to ourselves a secret or two. But St. Joseph was given this charge by God, the Holy Spirit, for his entire life. Imagine being told by God Himself that you would be given the great privilege of being the "foster father" of His very own Son, and then you could not tell this to even your closest friend. I, for one, as a man being naturally chatty, would probably not have been able to do this without a slip-up or two to the detriment of the charge.
Saint Joseph, the man of many virtues and a man of complete discretion, accomplished this, splendidly without even one slip-up!
Saint Joseph's success at keeping to himself the true nature of "Who" Jesus was is revealed in the Gospels in — of all places — the passage recounting Jesus' return to Nazareth. After Jesus had begun his active ministry for a few months, the Gospels recount that Our Lord returned to Nazareth. One reason for Our Lord visiting His hometown was to bring His childhood neighbors and friends into the Kingdom of God.
Paradoxically, the Gospels recount this because the childhood neighbors and friends of Our Lord "knew" Him so well that instead of receiving God's message of salvation with joy and thanksgiving, they rebuffed Him; many at the end attempted to kill Him. Our Lord and His disciples fled Nazareth, never to return. Sadly, the very people who "knew" St. Joseph, Mary and Our Lord, by their rejection of the Savior, sealed their eternal condemnation.
Luke's Gospel, out of the four, perhaps records Jesus' last visit to Nazareth most clearly for us to understand the psychological dynamics that were at play with the townspeople:
He came to Nazareth, where He had grown up, and went according to His custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll. ... And He said to them, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." And all spoke highly of Him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from His mouth. But, they also asked, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" He said to them: "Surely you will quote me this proverb, 'Physician cure yourself' and say, 'Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.'" And He said, "Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place." ... When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove Him out of the town, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl Him down headlong. But He passed through the midst of them and went away (Luke 4:16–30).
In one sense, it is understandable what played out in Nazareth all those years ago on that Sabbath day Our Lord returned to His hometown. The townspeople, to their detriment and damnation, presumed they "knew," as people do entirely too often, the entirety of "Who" Jesus, Mary and Joseph were.
In Mark's version of this same Gospel story, you hear the utter disdain in their collective voices: "'Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?' And they took offense at Him" (Mark 6:3). Ironically, among fallen human beings, this tendency by so many to presume an all-encompassing knowledge of someone, which is really only privy to God Himself, is quite common. This occurs despite the fact that Sacred Scripture admonishes the faithful repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments to remember that all men and women are created in God's image and likeness and should always be respected for the sacred mystery that they are.
This greater reality, however, was lost upon the townspeople of Nazareth, who thought they "knew" the entire "Who" of Jesus so much so that they attempted to kill Him to maintain their false understanding.
Apparently, few in Nazareth had a mom like I did growing up, who reprimanded severely my brothers and me for calling one of our neighbors, on a summer's day in my youth, a "witch." Our neighborhood "witch" — young boys can be so cruel — lived in a large, dilapidated Victorian house just off of the corner of our block where we were tossing a baseball back and forth on the sidewalk. At one point, our ball had fallen into the weeds of the "witch's" yard that had become her front yard. And as one of our gang was going to retrieve it, the woman opened her front door, and with her wispy white hair, gave one of our gang of thugs the devilish inspiration to shout "witch!" — which we all mimicked like parrots, much to this poor widower's hurt.
Later that summer afternoon, the mob congregated in my mother's kitchen, looking for refreshments. My mother, catching some hint from our conversation that something was off, made the entire gang sit down at the table and explain what had happened. After gleaning the gist of what had transpired, our berating of a perfect stranger in her own home, she directed the entire gang to stay seated under pain of death. She promptly marched out of the house and down the block with a loaf of freshly baked bread to make amends with the neighbor.
Upon her return, she informed us that we would have to do without afternoon snacks and that the neighbor had a name; her name was "Kay," and she was not a witch. Kay was a widow for whom the upkeep of a large, old house and yard were beyond her abilities. Looking directly at us, my mom said: "I will speak to your father about fixing her front porch tonight, which is coming apart!" She was speaking to the neighbor boys as well as those who were sitting with us, hoping to get a snack.
The Lesson of Nazareth is that people are just like icebergs; what you see of them is only a small part of who they are. As my mom explained:
Your shouting at Kay, 'witch, witch,' hurt her deeply, and far from being a mean woman, she is really sweet and came out of her house when she saw you guys playing ball because she had a bag of candy for you all that she can't eat because she is diabetic. I have it here, but you will all have to wait until tomorrow to have it!
Fallen people, like those who lived in Nazareth, or even my gang of neighborhood boys, fail to remember that each human being is a mystery and, as such, always must be treated with respect. We forget to count it a blessing if, in time, someone comes to reveal to you their true nature and qualities! Our Lord gave it His best shot that last Sabbath He spent in His hometown of Nazareth, and to the townsfolk's perdition, He was rejected.
But, back to St. Joseph, and his perfection of the lost virtue of discretion, keeping to oneself what God wants a man to keep secret. Saint Joseph, for his entire life, because he valued more than his very life his relationship with the Almighty, kept to himself (with the Blessed Mother) the knowledge of "Who" Jesus was. Unlike so many in our society who seem to have no discretion whatsoever, St. Joseph kept quiet about what he knew about Jesus to ensure Jesus would grow up unhindered in fulfilling His mission.
Saint Joseph would keep to himself all he knew about Jesus and Mary throughout his entire life. He would keep to himself — to his own death — this holy information about the world's redemption, and because of this, the world would be redeemed, and he himself would be saved.
One curious comment Our Lord makes to his disciples in the course of his ministry: "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine!" (Matthew 7:6). In a forthright manner, Jesus talks about the virtue of discretion — about how His disciples should guard the truth from those who would rather destroy it than receive it with joy. Sadly, some people, because of personal sinfulness and general ignorance, are not trustworthy with the truth, and it may even be virtuous to refrain from revealing it to them. It requires discretion.
So, please, in this year of St. Joseph, take to heart this forgotten, yet important, lesson from this august saint, the chaste and humble carpenter who kept to himself for his entire lifetime the important secrets God revealed to him for his salvation as well as the salvation of every man.
Discretion in the spiritual life is an important thing, and its keeping will keep the Devil at bay. He will not know the true "who" of who you are, and thereby have one fewer open door with which to mess with you.
Lastly, never fall into the trap like the people of Nazareth did, presuming total knowledge of someone. A man may be a carpenter, but being a carpenter is far from being the totality of the man! A man may have brothers and sisters, but his siblings are not him! Each man is a unique creation of God.
Recall, rather, that all men and women are made in the image and likeness of the Almighty and that they, like their Creator, are, in so many respects, beyond who they appear to be from the use of our senses and simple human reason.
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