Companions in Surrender: Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Mother of God
“You and I know from experience that people in love surrender themselves unhesitatingly. Their hearts beat in a wonderful unison, with a single love. What then will the Love of God be like?”
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
Friends of God, no. 220
The gospel appointed for the Solemnity of St Joseph just might break all the rules for discipleship (see Luke 2:41-51a). Jesus asks to be followed, but here He has effectively hidden Himself from His parents, staying behind in Jerusalem without notifying anyone. He knows that Mary and Joseph will return in search of Him, experiencing an anxiety that Mary herself describes as “great.” But He chooses to allow their distress in order to bear witness, even as a boy, to the supremacy of the Father’s will—which He will later call not only His work but also His food.
It’s easy for us to look back and see the whole story, to proclaim it as Gospel, but it wasn’t an easy history for Mary and Joseph to be a part of. We have the whole episode neatly compacted into a Lectionary selection, a decade of the Rosary, and we can contemplate the mystery without any anxiety. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the holy Couple had to live it firsthand, without a map or script to consult, without foreknowledge of the outcome. They were compelled to find the Lord not by prophetic insight but by process of elimination. One place after another proved fruitless until they decided to go up to the Lord’s house.
Our lives unfold like that, minus a ready-made timeline of events that we can follow. If we could see the end at the beginning, and all the steps in between, although we might be shocked at where God takes us, still we might have greater peace in knowing where both our journeys and layovers are taking us.
God does not want that for us. He wants us to follow in trust—and not just any kind of trust, but something on par with Mary and Joseph’s trust.
We needn’t hesitate to call it a blind trust, because to our eyes faith will always be an obscurity, even as it is the lamp that lights our way. We follow not because all of the details, the detours, have been reviewed and “okayed” by us beforehand, not because we see the marvelous panoramic harmony of providence, but because God is the maker of our path. Confidence in His wisdom and goodness, above all His love, decides how far our trust will go and thus how far we will follow.
Still, knowing all of this by faith and living it out in practice doesn’t exempt us from the same kind of anxiety and incomprehension that troubles the hearts of Mary and Joseph in the wake of the unprecedented disappearance: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Although Mary and Joseph never stopped trusting God, yet the emotional pain of loss stung. And certainly, as St Josemaria observes, “Souls who know what it is to lose Jesus Christ and to find him again, are able to understand this…” (Friends of God, no. 53).
Nor do they fully understand Jesus’s response to Mary’s very direct question: “Son, why have you done this to us?” What a question to ask of Jesus! What a complaint to make to God! Is this acceptable? Pope St John Paul II comments that when we suffer and ask God “Why?” that “God expects the question and listens to it” (Salvifici Doloris, no. 10). In a sense, God is “provoking” us to prayer—to teach us to walk with Him, to learn by experience to trust in His ways.
The endless conflict between God’s ways and human ways even shows itself in our Lady and St Joseph. They too had to look God in the face and ask “Why?” We can all relate. When God acts in a way that takes us completely by surprise, when He allows a lot of anxiety that we think could have been avoided, we might be tempted to think: Had we been informed ahead of time, had there been some consultation or “better planning” involved, then we could have responded without losing our time or composure.
But when God’s ways are not at all what we had expected, we are forced to confront ourselves: I believe in God, but do I really believe Him? Do I trust Him? Trust is the foundation of every good relationship. If we don’t trust, we can’t share ourselves with another, because we don’t want to risk the insecurity that vulnerability entails.
We like to have insurance, money in the bank, a safety net, so that we can both practice our religion and otherwise get by with peace of mind. It’s not wrong to have money or insurance. But it is wrong to serve God with a contingency plan to fall back on if His providence proves too unwieldy. St Josemaria would call this “the risky security of the Christian” (Christ is Passing By, no. 58).
In the gospel of the Finding in the Temple, Jesus puts His divine finger on a place that only He can touch—the place of our anxiety and fear—and He says, “But I was always here. Do not be afraid.” And in uniquely divine fashion, He consoles while He challenges, alarms while reassuring. Standing in the temple with the holy Couple, we can see where the loss and finding was leading. Jesus was always safe. He chose to be where He was.
Yet when this same story replays itself in my life, the mystery starts all over again. When His choices for me take me by surprise, the incomprehension begins anew. And we see more and more why Mary and Joseph are the models for how to respond to God without having all of our questions answered.
The Church condenses the greatness of Saint Joseph into one title, Spouse of the Mother of God, the title of his principle feast. If St Joseph is our Lady’s fitting companion, her match, then more than being good friends or simply being “compatible,” they are one in God, seeking the one thing necessary together—at whatever cost.
They are companions in surrender to God’s will. Whether their surrender takes them to a Bethlehem stable, to Egypt for an undetermined length of time, or on a three-day search for their lost Child, they are prepared to do anything, go anywhere, as soon as the Lord makes His will known—even when He conveys it quietly by withdrawing from them in the temple.
But it is there, in His Father’s house, in a moment of great trial and incomprehension, that Jesus unravels the mystery with a mystery: God’s will, being about the Father’s business, is the ultimate goal of all faithful surrender, finally reached by way of trust, and leading us in the end to the definitive answer to St Josemaria’s question, “What then will the Love of God be like?”