St. Bernard on St. Joseph the 'Just Man'
Stained glass of St. Joseph's Dream (from Matthew 1:20-21), created in the 13th century, and located at the Cistercian abbey of Lilienfeld, Austria
[The following is excerpted from "The Glories of St. Joseph," compiled by the Monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Flavigny, France.]
"Joseph her husband, being a just man and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately [Matthew 1: 19]. It was right of Joseph not to accuse Mary since he was just. He would not have been just if he had concealed adultery, nor could be be just if he condemned one whom he knew to be innocent. Being just and unwilling to expose Mary publicly, he preferred to send her away privately."
"Why did he want to send her away? Listen to this which is not my opinion, but that of the Fathers. The reason Joseph wanted to separate from Mary is the one invoked by St. Peter himself to avoid the Lord: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord [Luke 5: 8]; and by the centurion to keep Him from his house: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof [Matthew 8: 8]. So it was with St. Joseph, too. Feeling himself to be unworthy and sinful, he thought: 'She is so perfect and so great that I do not deserve that she should share her intimacy with me any longer; her astonishing dignity surpasses me and frightens me.' He saw with sacred fear that she carried the clear marks of a divine presence. As he could not fathom the mystery, he preferred to leave her. Fear struck Peter at the greatness of the Lord's power; fear seized the Centurion at the majesty of His presence; fear seized St. Joseph quite naturally as it would any man at the uncanniness of the extraordinary miracle, at the depth of the mystery, and that is why he wanted to separate from her privately."
"Can we be surprised that St. Joseph thought himself unworthy to live with the Blessed Virgin when we are told that even St. Elizabeth trembled with awe in her presence. Here are her words: Whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? [Luke 1: 43]"
"That is why St. Joseph wanted to put her away; but why privately and not publicly? To avoid all inquiry into the motives for the separation and to escape the obligation of accounting for it. If he had given his opinion and the proof he had of the purity of Mary, the Jews would have derided him and stoned Mary. How would those Jews believe in the Truth still silent in His Mother's womb, when, later, they scorned His outcry in the temple? What would they have done to Christ, as yet invisible, when, later, they laid sacrilegious hands upon Him although He shone with the splendor of His miracles? In order not to be reduced to telling lies or to laying an innocent open to blame, it was quite right of St. Joseph, the just man, to separate from Our Lady in secret."