Several years ago, when we were trying to sell our house in Memphis, a Catholic neighbor told me to buy a statue of St. Joseph, bury him upside down in the garden, and say a special prayer. This, she assured me, would guarantee a quick sale. I went to the local Catholic bookstore, bought a miniature St. Joseph. I followed her directions, and, within a short time, the house sold.
But I forgot something: I left St. Joseph buried in the garden. He'd done his work; I didn't need him anymore. To this day, he rests upside down under a plot of perennials on Autumn Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
This is, of course, the way most Christians treat Joseph -- forgetting him. His scriptural "job" was to stand by his wife, to give paternal cover to the baby Jesus. He says nary a word in the Bible; he sleeps through the four major prophecies delivered to him. He wasn't made a compulsory saint by the Roman Catholic Church until 1621 and wasn't assigned his major feast day (May 1) until 1955. Pretty tough on a fellow whose wife is called "blessed" by all generations.
Joseph appears mostly in Matthew. We don't know when he was born or where he died. Yet the gospel of Matthew opens with his genealogy, thus giving Jesus a name and a lineage in Hebrew history. Although he doesn't speak, Joseph's actions are key to Matthew's story. On divine direction, Joseph married Mary and named her son; he took Jesus to Egypt to protect the baby from the murderous Herod; he returned the family to Israel; and eventually settled them in Nazareth in Galilee. Without Joseph's actions -- his faithful responses to his dreams -- ancient prophecy regarding the Messiah would not have been fulfilled. Thus, Joseph is a primary actor in the unfolding pageant of God's grace, without ever saying a word. Always in the background, always doing his job.
God's light breaks into the world through words -- through blessed virgins, prophets, angels, and wise men. But the light also comes through quiet action. Sometimes forgotten servants do the most to bring forth the reign of God.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).