Friday, January 1st, 2021

‘Dum medium silentium’: a Sermon for the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas

While all things were held in the midst of silence, and the night had in her course reached the middle of her passage, your almighty word came from heaven (Wisdom 18, 14-15).

This text, of course, taken from the introit of today’s Mass. But to what silence does the sacred writer refer? Does it refer to the Pax Romana, making the reference an historical one? Perhaps. Is the text simply describing the night on which Christ was born? (Or, better still, the conception of the God-man in the womb of the Virgin Mother at the Annunciation?) Or perhaps the silence here is the mystic silence of the Most Holy Trinity, out of which the Son emerged, so to speak, in order to assume the nature of man. Indeed, all of these could be true.

But today I would like to suggest something more. I submit that the Sermo of the Almighty also came into the midst of the silence of St Joseph; that is to say, that the Nativity of our Blessed Lord took place in the context of silence that characterized the life of St Joseph.

In one sense, St Joseph’s silence is a rather literal one. Like the first Joseph, the spouse of Mary was a man of dreams. And of course, one must be sleeping in order to receive a dream; and sleep implies a quieted body and mind. Colloquially we speak of ‘the sleep of the just.’ In St Joseph, we have the sleep of the just man, indeed.

But obviously there is more. Silence considered as a human activity has two ends. The first we might call ascetical: it aims at the avoidance of sin. Silence allows us to avoid the manifold sins of speech. And not by accident do we speak of quieting the passions. The second end of silence we might call contemplative: it allows the soul to be docile to the promptings of grace. Both are necessary; and the first ought to lead to the second. And it is obvious to us that the life of St Joseph is characterized by both aspects of silence. And in many ways, no doubt, this silence made St Joseph to be the just man he is.[1]

After all, in the midst of St Joseph’s silence, there was a work to be done; and we enlist the help of St Jerome[2] to help us to see just what kind of work. He asks the question, ‘Why was [Our Lord] not conceived of a woman who was simply a virgin, but rather, from one who was betrothed?’ He gives four answers, and each answer sheds light on the vocation of St Joseph.

First, because of the genealogical question: ‘And Mathan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.'[3] St Joseph provides for the continuity of the divine plan.

Second, so that she would be preserved from the punishment of the law. ‘Ne lapidaretur,’ as St Jerome puts it. Under the Old Dispensation, adultery was a capital offense; but Mary’s espousal to Joseph defends her from the stones of the Law’s rigor. There may well have been indiscrete whispers among the Holy Family’s neighbors about the timing of her pregnancy and doubts over the nature of St Joseph’s paternity—but here was no unwed mother. And this thanks to the silent obedience of St Joseph.

Third, and perhaps most touchingly, our Lady required the solace of Joseph’s company: ‘haberet solacium.’ Note well that St Jerome does not use the Latin words for ‘help:’ auxilium or adiutorium. He says solacium, a decidedly interior quality; and this would be especially needed, he says, during the Flight into Egypt. Surely the practical helps of husband would be needed during the hasty and dangerous travel: but it was no less the companionship and spiritual help of St Joseph that Our Lady required.

Fourth, St Jerome transmits an additional insight from St Ignatius. According to the saintly martyr-bishop, the presence of St Joseph allowed the divine birth to be concealed from Satan—from Satan who, aware of Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth, would not therefore have expected the Messiah to be born of a married woman. A fascinating insight into the unseen nature of salvation history, just as St Paul teaches:

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.[4]

It is with all this in mind that the silence of St Joseph takes on powerful and profound contours. This is the silence into which the Word of the Almighty made its entrance. It was a silence presided over and furnished by St Joseph, the Guardian of the Redeemer.


[1] Matthew 1, 19.

[2] Cf Roman Breviary, 24 December, Matins: Liber 1 comment. in cap. 1 Matt. 

[3] Matthew 1, 15-16.

[4] Ephesians 6, 12.

{Art Credit: Rembrandt, Joseph’s Dream (1645); The Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.}

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