Joseph the Introvert?

On the feast of St. Joseph, my reflection on Joseph from the Sunday before Christmas.  Well-received buy Josephs and introverts especially!

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Have you ever taken the time to imagine what Joseph might have been like?  I have to admit that I haven’t though about it very much, but when I do bring Joseph to mind what I come up with is a rather flat character.  One might even say dull.  After all, when it comes to the nativity story, we all know that the stars of the show are Jesus and Mary.
Joseph’s is merely a supporting role.  He stands next to Mary.  He’s the protector.  He doesn’t say much.  In fact, in the Scriptures he says nothing at all!  Yet, still, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that in today’s Gospel we see that, like Mary, Joseph has his own experience of the annunciation.  But whereas Mary has her Magnificat, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, his song of praise—both of which are recalled daily in the Church’s office of prayer—Joseph’s response to the miraculous events surrounding him is just silent obedience.

Still, I have to wonder if Joseph gets short shrift.  Maybe he’s a bit more interesting than we’ve given him credit for.  After all, look how God speaks to him.  The angel doesn’t appear to Joseph physically, but instead in a dream.  And this dream, perhaps, is meant to have us recall the previous Joseph, son of Jacob.  He of the famous “technicolor dreamcoat,” he the “master dreamer.”  Was the young Joseph, like the earlier one, someone who dreamed great dreams, someone who was destined to be great?  Perhaps he too like Mary had been specially prepared to accept the role of father of the savior, and was not simply the guy who happened to be betrothed to Mary when she was asked to conceive and bear the holy child who would save his people from their sins.  Maybe Joseph deserves a second look.

But I want to take a second look at Joseph not in order to show how he can be as exciting as that other Joseph, or as Jesus and Mary, but because I think that the reason we tend to undervalue him should challenge us.  There is currently a book on the best-seller list called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain.  And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there has been a lot more talk about introverts these days.  Estimates are that about 1/3 to ½ of the general population are introverts, and that the number may be growing.  We don’t see it as much in the U.S. because our culture is dominated by extroverts, and an extrovert-biased mindset.  But what Cain argues is that we must learn to value and make room for introverts today because we might just need them like never before.  Indeed, our society has become so frenetic—and unfortunately the Christmas season has come to epitomize this—that most of us could stand to learn what it might be like to be a little more introverted or, for the introverts here today, learn that it’s OK to seek quiet and solitude away from the pressure of holiday parties and non-stop shopping.  Indeed, she goes on to say that the most creative—or at least alternative—thinkers among us are the introverts, and if we don’t give them, or ourselves, whatever the case may be, the permission and space to find the creative solitude they need, we all suffer.  As much as they might like to, it’s not a good thing if only the extroverts rule the world, or the company, or the Church.  This is perhaps why we need to pay more attention to figures like Joseph.  He might just be-especially during Christmas—the patron saint of introverts.

Consider his annunciation.  Why is it different than Mary’s?  It may be because both God’s message and Joseph’s response take place in the best context in which Joseph can faithfully and reflectively respond—in the interiority of a dream, in the slowness and silence of waking and in the determined act of quiet obedience, taking Mary as his wife and choosing to be father to Jesus.  Indeed, when describing introverts like Ghandi, for example, who became great and inspiring leaders, Cain could well have been describing Joseph.  “People could feel,” she says, “that they were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others, not out of the pleasure of being looked at, but they were there because they had no choice, they were driven to do what was right.”  Joseph’s actions suggest that he knew he had no choice because he was able to let God speak to him.

And that is really my point.  I’m not saying that everyone should be an introvert.  Indeed, I learned from Susan Cain that I’m probably an “ambivert,” that is, someone who sits right at the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum.  And, like all “verts,” I need to own that.  Rather, I think what we can take from Joseph’s example is that we each need to invite God into a space where God can speak to us in a way that we can trust.  What strikes me about Joseph is that he never seems to have any doubt that it is God speaking to him.  And before the story is over, the angel comes to him in a dream three more times, and Joseph acts accordingly.  Perhaps with the exception of Herod, Joseph is the busiest guy in the first two chapters of Matthew.  So, maybe his isn’t just a supporting role after all.  The pantheon of heroes is not without its strong, silent types.  But not all of us need to be silent to hear God’s voice, and act on it.

In these waning days of Advent, then, with Christmas fast approaching, perhaps we can turn our attention away from the in-your-face, extroverted, commercial Christmas enterprise, and instead embrace the real Christmas surprise—God with us in the more ordinary moments of giving and receiving, of celebrating together and enjoying time in solitude and rest, and finding that place in the midst of all of where God best speaks to the person that I am—in a crowd, all alone, or in a dream.  And as we witness the birth of Jesus into our world 2000 years ago, we might also ask God to show each of us—whatever “vert” we are—how we are called, like Mary and Joseph, to introduce Christ to the world, acting quietly, audaciously, or even sometimes uncharacteristically, according to calling, the gifts—and the temperament—that God has given each one of us.  There are just 3 more stopping days until Christmas, take a step back, enjoy them, and have a blessed Christmas!

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