Words on the Word

St Joseph

2 Samuel 7.4-16: Your house and sovereignty will always stand secure.
Romans 4.13-22: Your descendants will be as many as the stars.
Matthew 1.16-24: The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.

In the liturgy there is one term that more than any other characterises St Joseph: he is referred to as custosCustos Redemptoris, Custos Verbi, etc. In today’s collect we thank God for entrusting the beginning of our salvation precisely to Joseph’s custodia.

It’s not such an easy term to render. The English word ‘custody’ makes us think of a prison sentence; a ‘custodian’ is not at first sight a liberating presence. In Latin, custos is derived from the same root as scutum, which means ‘a shield’. A shield exists to defend a man from enemy attack. It must be light enough to be easily manoeuvrable; it must be strong enough to withstand sharp arrows. Here’s an image that may help us understand St Joseph better.

In Scripture Joseph is from the outset a protective presence. When his betrothed was found to be great with child and he did not know how, his first intent was ‘not to bring shame upon her’. He would set himself as a shield between Mary and the village gossips. When an angel revealed to Joseph, son of David, who it was Mary bore, it became his life’s task to stand as a shield before Emmanuel. It was Joseph, Matthew tells us, who ‘gave him the name Jesus’, which can be translated: ‘God saves’.

Joseph protected the child agains Herod’s mad jealousy, thereby leaving behind all he could claim as his own. Like the patriarchs of old — Abraham, Jacob and Joseph — he went down to Egypt in order to enable the fulfilment of a mystic prophecy: ‘From Egypt I have called my Son’. Jesus is God‘s Son, yet Joseph remains self-sacrificingly in a father’s stead. He gives everything for the child, without making demands for himself. He surrenders himself in order to give salvation a foothold in this world. Thanks to him the promise, ‘God with us’, is fulfilled.

Joseph is reassuringly present as long as he is needed, then he quietly slips out of the picture without grand gestures. He is the only key figure in Scripture who is never said to have spoken a single word. His dedication to the Word is discreet, silent, prayerful, and active.

In these ways Joseph remains an example for all of us who would call ourselves Christians. This is especially true for bishops, called to be, as our Holy Father has reminded us, Custodes traditionis, protecting shields around a tradition that is no static luggage but a vital force of life, an energy of salvation, the mystery of Christ in humanly accessible form.

St Joseph calls us to live our faith coherently, with courage and devotion, and not to confuse ourselves and others with all manner of superfluous, useless chatter. In a time like ours, in which the significance of words is easily subverted, such an approach is balm for the soul. Indeed, I’d call it a prophet’s approach.

If we truly seek renewal in the Church, we shall find it in the School of St Joseph, who as Custos Verbi let the Word speak, while holding his own tongue.


An image of St Joseph’s vision of the angel from a side altar in the abbey church of Clervaux