MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame
For almost as far back as I can remember (and stretching far into my foreseeable future) the conclusion of the Christmas season has inevitably meant the beginning of a new academic semester. For the past five years, as my family has taken down the Christmas tree and put away the ornaments and decorations, I have packed up my dad’s old Dodge Caravan and made my way back down to South Bend to start the spring semester at Notre Dame. This year, as I reflected on this sequence, I was struck by a kind of paradox in it all. On the one hand, throughout Advent and Christmas I found myself noticing the elements of secrecy or ‘hiddenness’ that characterized the Incarnation. The birth of the Creator into His world was not some global or explosive phenomenon. It was not so much like a shout as it was more of a whisper. Very few people noticed when Christ was born.
On the other hand, I have spent the past eight semesters at the University of Notre Dame, which aims not to go hidden or unnoticed in the world, but instead strives for prestige and recognition. At a place full of highly achieving, highly motivated individuals, it is tough to imagine a provost’s speech at the opening of the academic year or a commencement speaker’s address ever touting the virtues of being “hidden.” Students are reminded of their successes and achievements, and are charged with forging their own unique paths and changing the world around them. We champion individuality, boldness, and creativity, and would likely find it odd if at the beginning of the new academic year the president or provost stood before all of our students and urged them to live interiorly, or to blend in, to hide themselves. Part of Notre Dame’s mission is to breed success, and to stand out in the world as a prestigious institution. This is certainly not the only part of our institutional identity (and neither am I attempting to label such an aspiration as a negative thing). But this is all simply to say that Notre Dame is a bold and ambitious institution, full of bold and ambitious people pursuing bold and ambitious projects: this can be seen all across campus, from the accomplishments of the students, faculty, and alumni to the expansion of campus and recent construction and renovation initiatives.
Yet the Incarnation teaches us that the perfect Christian life is not one of prestige or recognition. Rather, the true Christian life is irreducibly hidden, or as Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C. writes: “The perfect life will be an interior life, elevated to God by the habitual practice of acts of faith, hope, and charity after the example of Jesus Christ, who is to be the particular model of our conduct. It is absolutely essential for us to lead with our Lord a life hidden in God.”
Origen of Alexandria, too, draws attention to this inherently hidden life of a Christian. Citing Lamentations, he writes: “The breath of our countenance is Christ the Lord, of whom we said that we shall live under his shadow among the nations” (cf. Lam 4:20).
“For the nations which imitate that soul through faith and so reach salvation,” Origen goes on to write, “live in the mystery of this assumption” (On First Principles, II.VI.7). That notions of the irreducible “hiddenness” of the Christian life is essential to Origen’s thought can be gleaned from the passages he chooses to draw on from Scripture, such as Colossians 3:3 (“Our life is hid with Christ in God”), Ephesians 3:9 (“Christ is ‘hid in God'”), Luke 1:35 (“The Spirit of the Lord shall come upon thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee”), and Job 8:9 (“Is not our life on the earth a shadow?”). This theme also emerges in Origen’s Homilies on Luke, in which he writes that Elizabeth, when she had conceived, “kept herself hidden for five months” (Homilies on Luke, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., 23). Even the Incarnation, for Origen, is a “hidden” event, as “it was Christ’s will that the devil should be ignorant of the coming of God’s Son … and thus the mystery of the Savior was hidden from the rulers of this age” (Homilies on Luke, 25). Origen is certainly not lacking in scriptural evidence for the assertion that the Christian life, lived in “the mystery” of Christ’s shadow, is turned into something “hidden.”
What, though, might such a “hidden” life look like, in practice? There are countless examples that we could look to in the vast treasury of saints and figures the Church gives us. Who better to turn to, however, than the preeminent disciple of Christian hiddenness: St. Joseph?
As Scripture attests, Joseph plays an indispensable role in the Incarnation. In the infancy narratives of both Luke and Matthew, Joseph is presented as a crucial link between the coming of Christ and the Davidic covenant of the Old Testament. Matthew, for example, tracing Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham, shows that it is through Joseph—and not Mary—that the Davidic lineage is passed to Jesus. What is more, when the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in Matthew 1:20, he refers to Joseph as “son of David.” Luke, too, in relating the story of the Annunciation, simply calls Mary “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Lk 1:27), later commenting again that Joseph was “descended from the house and family of David” (Lk 2:4). It is evident, then, that the Gospel writers wished to show that Jesus is a descendent of King David, which they accomplish by tracing the genealogy through his father, Joseph. This gives a special kind of weight to Joseph’s own fiat to become husband to Mary and father to Jesus.
Joseph’s relation to David is not merely accidental, and it is also clear that Joseph’s connection to David is not only historical but typological as well, as it is through Joseph that God fulfills the covenant established with David. To explain, the second book of Samuel records: “David was afraid of the LORD that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’ So David was unwilling to take the ark of the LORD into his care in the city of David” (2 Sam 6:9–10). Yet later we are told that David finally, at the command of the Lord, “brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing” (2 Sam 6:12). This event prefigures Joseph, who, when commanded by the angel of the Lord to “not be afraid to take Mary” as his wife, brought the ark of the New Covenant “into his home” and “to the city of David called Bethlehem” (see especially Mt 1:20 and Lk 2:4). It is also through Joseph that God’s promise to David is fulfilled:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. (2 Sam 7:12-14)
Compare this promise with the following passage from Luke concerning Jesus:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1:32-33).
These two passages make clear not only Joseph’s centrality in the mystery of the Incarnation, but also his imitation—through faith and obedience—of that soul, the shadow of Christ contemplated by Origen. Joseph, called a “law-abiding” or “righteous” man by Scripture (Mt 1:19), accomplished what David initially could not in taking Mary, the ark of the New Covenant, into his home (consider also the angel’s commands to Joseph to not only take Mary as his wife, but to also take her to Egypt [Mt 2:13-14] and eventually out of Egypt to the land of Israel [Mt 2:19-21], which call to mind the Lord’s commands to David [cf. 2 Sam]). Additionally, none, save Joseph, could have recited the prayer of David so truly and familiarly:
Who am I, O lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? … And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. …for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever. (2 Sam 7:18–29)
Therefore it is clear that Joseph is presented in Scripture as not only a descendent of David, but in many ways can be read as a kind of New David.
Yet it must be noted that, aside from the infancy narratives, Scripture is mysteriously and notably silent when it comes to Joseph, whose fiat held such significance in the economy of salvation history. We can conclude from what the evangelists chose to include among the Gospel narratives regarding Joseph that what they found most important was his obedience, righteousness, and ties to the Davidic lineage. The Joseph of Scripture, then, is the ‘hidden’ Christian par excellence because he is a soul that so imitated the obedience and righteousness achieved by Christ’s soul, living entirely “under his shadow,” that he was taken up, as it were, into the “mystery of this assumption” (Origen, On First Principles II.VI.7). Joseph, whose identity is so completely wrapped up in the mystery of divine revelation to the point that he almost has no identity of his own apart from his role in the Incarnation, points to what it means to become “hid with Christ in God.” This virtue of “hiddenness,” however, gave Joseph an individuality, influence, and boldness that changed history. Perhaps this may even provide clues as to why the Congregation of Holy Cross’ own “hidden disciple”—St. André Bessette, C.S.C., whose feast day is celebrated on January 6—found such a friend and patron in St. Joseph. What might our own lives and institutions look like if we more readily accepted this invitation to “lead with our Lord a life hidden with God”?