St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the advice, ''Preach always. When necessary, use words.'' However, St. Joseph, chaste spouse and foster father, may be the only person in recorded history to have moved millions by his preaching although he never moved his lips.

Listen to the Gospels and you will never hear his voice; meditate on his example and he will move your heart. If the person of the preacher is the most important testimony of a homilist, priests have something to learn from the example of St. Joseph.

At an advanced age when someone should be able to rest and reap, Joseph broke open a dangerous game of hide and seek: ''When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him''' (Mt 2:13).

How had this happened? Joseph had been properly engaged to a nice girl, had waited to propose until he had a profession to support her, and had been chaste in his relations with her (Mt 1:18). He had done everything right. He had worked hard and played by the rules. But then, the game changed and Joseph looked like the proverbial nice guy who finishes last.

Joseph didn't warrant all this drama, but he didn't even get a choice about the script. Mary got the choice. She could have said yes or no to the pregnancy. Joseph wasn't consulted, only informed ''But after he had considered this [divorce], an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit''' (Mt 1:20). Joseph preached not only mutely but blindly in his obedience to a destiny he did not choose.

Attached Only to God

We know that he received this obedience in his dreams while asleep, but only after all his daydreams had been shattered -- how did he ever fall sleep? He thought that his beloved had humiliated him. He felt that all his plans and hard work were worthless. Every time he thought he had his act together, somebody changed the script -- yet he was able to sleep! How? He slept the sleep of the righteous; he was at peace with himself even when his world was in turmoil. He slept the sleep of one detached from the world and attached only to God.

Recall St. Francis's advice? Joseph not only preaches without words, he even preaches when he is unconscious! His resting in righteousness was the opening the angel needed to remind him of the destiny of his ancestry. The angel does not say, ''Joseph, son of Jacob,'' although that is what we read in his genealogy (Mt 1:16). The angel says ''Joseph, son of David.'' Joseph recalls that he is the son of a king and that a king may not fear. Joseph's silent response to that slight difference in the angel's address is a sermon that testifies that he will take this shamed woman into his royal house -- not with the lust of David who took Bathsheba, but rather with the liberty of two people acting freely in concert with God. And the Son to be born would be far greater than Solomon (Mt 12:42).

Faithful

With a silent nod or peaceful nap, Joseph proclaimed that what appeared to all as fickleness was really fidelity. He believed that Mary had been faithful because he was faithful and recognized the virtue from his own experience. Joseph in return was faithful despite what must have been no support from his family or friends.

The first to believe his unspoken sermon were not his own people, but strangers from the East. ''After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem'' (Mt 2:1). Note that they found only Mary and the baby. Where was Joseph? There is no mention of his silent presence: ''On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him'' (Mt 2:11).

Was Joseph off by himself praying? Was that the habit that made his faith possible? Is that how Jesus learned to go off by himself and pray? If even Christ, the greatest teacher, learned from Joseph, wordless preacher, how much more might we priests learn from his example about foster fathering Christ to others and beloved espousing of Mary, archetype of the Church? We have no solemnity of Joseph the Preacher, only Joseph the Worker, but we learn from his labor an example of one who preaches not by first trying to convert another soul, but by constantly, silently and faithfully brooding over the Word that makes him whole.

Joseph's Example

Jesus the famous preacher never showed shame over his humble father (''Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers, James, Joseph...?'' Mt 13:55). Rather Jesus risked His life to elevate the example of Joseph to the privileged metaphor for God. Jesus could have used many acceptable images of God (e.g., Mount Zion) without risk, but he was condemned because He called God His Father. On the lips of Christ, ''Abba'' is synonymous with ''Joseph.'' Jesus was determined that the example of Joseph was the best sermon.

The example of Joseph the homilist is that preaching is less about our breaking open the Word and more about our cooperation with the Word that wants to break us open. People don't want ramble and preamble; they want example. Consider other advice to preachers attributed to St. Francis, ''If people don't already recognize you as a Christian before you rise to preach, don't bother.'' Only in the fire of our own conversion can we forge the two-edged sword, the sermon that may leave some convicted and others conflicted.

Sometimes we preach hard like a boxer's jaw, but sometimes we preach soft like the underside of a kitten's paw. And, while sometimes we preach so joyfully that we bring out the sweetness in our listener's smile, sometimes we preach so soulfully that we bring out the salt in their tears. Hard or soft, tearful or joyful, people will forget whatever we speak about God's Word, but not what The Word speaks through us. Some- times we'll please heaven, and sometimes we'll grieve earth: both pass away, but God's Word will never pass away if people sense through our sweet smile of praise or salty tear of compassion that our homily is not just some weekly anomaly but our lifelong identity.

The passion of the preacher is not to convince people by eloquent speech, but to conform ourselves to what we preach. Then, like Joseph, our own hearts are moved before our lips open. That is the lesson of the foster father from Nazareth for the priests of God's Church. Joseph loved a woman and raised a son without sex; he defied a king and saved the Savior without violence; he obeyed dreams from heaven without building castles in the air, and he preached without a word because he lived what he had heard. Once his heart was moved he could move hearts of stone, rolling them away with the power of his example in living the life of his Resurrected Son.

Like Joseph before his workbench, we stand before the altar sometimes feeling that we too were not consulted about our vocation. But we must preach for the same reason that wheat ripens and grapes plump: it is the destiny of our prophetic ancestry for the Word to grow within us until it bursts open like a fall fig. The final advice of St. Francis, like all the preaching by Joseph, is through example. The example of Francis's stigmatization empowered his evangelization. People want to touch the exit wounds of the preached Word. TP

Father Davis, O.F.M. Conv., is associate professor of Pastoral Studies at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad, Ind.