28 August 2021

Homily - Saint Augustine on Saint Joseph

The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we celebrate today this Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, we find ourselves still in the midst of the Year of Saint Joseph. This is a year Pope Francis proclaimed, he said, “to increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.”[1] With this in mind, I thought it might be good this year to have a look at what our heavenly patron has to say about the one we call Protector of the Holy Church.

Alexandre Cabanel
Detail, Saint Augustine in His Study, 1845

AI do so, in part, taking the lead of the Holy Father. He concluded his Apostolic Letter proclaiming the Year of Saint with a quote from Saint Augustine, who asked, “What they could do, can you not also do?[2] What is it Saint Augustine saw in Saint Joseph that we can also do?

During Saint Augustine’s lifetime, there were some who took offense that the genealogy of Jesus was given not through Mary, but through Joseph. The reason they were offended is because, as we know, Joseph is not the natural father of Jesus, as if this somehow made him less of a father to the Son of God. But Saint Augustine would have nothing to do with this line of thinking; instead, he launched into a staunch defense of Saint Joseph.

While some laughed at Joseph for having been betrothed to a woman who appeared to be an adulteress, Saint Augustine saw Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy as a mark of his virtue. Augustine said:

He [Joseph] is upset as a husband, of course, but as a just man he does not fall into a rage. This man is credited with such a keen sense of justice, that he would neither agree to have an adulteress as his wife, nor venture to punish her by publicizing the matter. He “wished,” it says, “to break off the engagement quietly;” he was unwilling not only to punish her, but even to put her to shame.[3]

In Joseph’s intentions, there is much to learn for our society, which is so eager to shame others and to publicize one another’s private sins. Against this temptation, Saint Augustine teaches us that “those sins … are to be rebuked in front of everybody which are committed in front of everybody,” but “those which are committed less publicly are to be rebuked less publicly. Distinguish between the occasions, and scripture is at peace with itself.”[4] Joseph, then, teaches us to be just, humble, and gentle.

Before saying anything more here, we have to point out that Joseph was incorrect in his initial assessment of the situation. As the angel would reveal to him, Mary had not committed adultery but remained faithful to Joseph; she did not conceive through another man, bur through the Holy Spirit. Reflecting on this revelation, Saint Augustine said, “So while he [Joseph] was made uneasy by human weakness, he was reassured by divine authority.”[5] In effect, he reminds us that we should trust in God more than we trust in our own assessments.

From this observation, Saint Augustine returned to the argument of his opponents who claimed it was not right that the genealogy of Jesus be traced through Joseph.

Augustine pointed out it was this same divine authority who, through the angel, called Joseph the husband of Mary (cf. Matthew 1:20-21). Moreover, Joseph was commanded “to give the child a name, even though it was not born of his own seed,” which Augustine sees as proof that Joseph “is not deprived of his paternal authority.”[6]

Just in case these arguments are not enough for someone to stop questioning the role of Joseph as father to Jesus, Saint Augustine also notes that “the Virgin Mary herself, perfectly aware that she had not conceived Christ by Joseph’s conjugal embrace, still calls him Christ’s father” when she and Joseph found him in the Temple (cf. Luke 2:48).[7] To those who argue that Jesus denied being Joseph’s son when he asked them, “Did you not know I had to be about my Father’s business?,” Augustine points out that Saint Luke tells us Jesus “was obedient to them,” not just to Mary, but to Joseph, as well (Luke 2:51).

As if to crown his argument about the fittingness of tracing the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph and not through Mary, Saint Augustine turns his attention to marriage. He says, “So we can’t say that Joseph wasn’t a father, just because he never slept with the mother of the Lord – as though it were lust that made someone into a wife, and not married love.”[8] Augustine goes on from this argument to say that “a man can have two fathers, one who begot him from his seed, the other who adopted him out of love.”[9] Here Augustine highlights the importance of love within a family.

For each of these reasons, Saint Augustine says

It shouldn’t bother us that the ancestry of Christ is reckoned through Joseph and not through Mary; it’s because, just as she was a mother without carnal desire, so he was a father without carnal intercourse… We should allow that his greater purity confirms his fatherhood, or we might find ourselves rebuked by Saint Mary herself.[10]

Jesus, says Saint Augustine, “was born of the Virgin Mary, to the piety and love of Joseph” and so he is rightly called the father of Jesus.[11]

As we celebrate this Solemnity of our great patron, let us ask Saint Augustine to teach us how to imitate Saint Joseph with him and to implore his intercession. May he teach us to be just, humble, and gentle, to trust in God, and to establish our families on the foundation of love. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Patris corde, 7.

[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VIII.11.27.

[3] Ibid., Sermon 51.9.

[4] Ibid., 82.10.

[5] Ibid., 51.9.

[6] Ibid., 51.16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 51.21.

[9] Ibid., 51.27.

[10] Ibid., 51.30.

[11] Ibid.

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