By Fr Donald Chambers
God’s creation overflows with moments incognito.
‘Incognito’ means to hide one’s true identity. The word originates from the Latin ‘in’ meaning ‘not’ and ‘cognitus’ meaning ‘know’.
From the oppressed plantation slaves who used incognito to strategise their emancipation, to animals who hibernate, incognito is a hidden life.
Let us continue reflecting on the life of Joseph the Patriarch and Joseph the carpenter.
In the Joseph story of Genesis 42: 1–22, Joseph chose initially to be incognito before his jealous brothers who came to Egypt to buy grain. Genesis 42:7c says, “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them. But he did not make himself known to them.”
Prior to this encounter, Joseph lived an incognito life in Egypt. He was fully Egyptian in dress and manner and revealed no trace of his Hebrew origins. He assumed an Egyptian name (Gen 41:45), and he chose an Egyptian name (Manasseh) for his first born (Gen 45:51).
However, the scripture scholar Lawrence Boadt points out that, “The genius of the narrator . . . is that at every stage we are made fully aware that, inside, Joseph has forgotten nothing and has a deep longing for his family in spite of everything they have done to him.”
In both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, Joseph the carpenter, is also incognito. He appears in the Infancy Narratives (Luke) and then disappears from the scene. Despite the incognito life of both Josephs, they play a significant role in the overall story of God’s salvation.
In the case of Joseph (Genesis), he saves his family from the ravages of the famine, and Joseph (carpenter) saves the Child Jesus from death.
The incognito life facilitates personal transformation. Moments of incognito enabled both Josephs to relinquish their ego and create opportunities for personal transformation.
The human ego tends to have a controlling tendency and aims to focus on the self while ignoring outside contribution, even God’s will. The ego likes and is fed by outward attention, accolades, status, titles, and recognitions.
In the absence of information, the ego assumes the negative. The incognito life, however, is an opportunity to access information.
When Joseph (Matthew) is offered additional information about the Child whom Mary is carrying, he revisits his decision to divorce her privately. When Joseph (Genesis) receives additional information about his father, he changes strategy towards his brothers.
To become incognito makes us ordinary, equal with, and become part of the whole without wanting to stand out as different or better than, as did Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) when he took on the role of a cardboard collector for one night in the streets of Buenos Aires (Let us Dream). The incognito life allowed both Josephs to be open to the silent voice of God.
The incognito life can nourish creative and courageous responses to experiences of broken expectations and disappointment.
Out of his incognito moment, Joseph (Genesis) devises a creative and courageous strategy towards his brothers and their requests to purchase grain (Gen 42:1–24).
Similarly, each time Joseph (Matthew) is faced with a crisis he goes into a deep sleep (incognito moment) and emerges with a creative and courageous plan such as taking Mary home (Mt 1:19), taking Mary and the Child to Egypt “by night” (Mt 2:14), and returning to settle in Nazareth (Mt 2:19–23). Joseph is portrayed as a person incognito—without self-attention, fanfare, and public notice.
Pope Francis writes that “In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had” (5, Patris Corde).
The incognito life equips us to engage with life’s difficulties. In Matthew 6, Jesus instructs His disciples to practise almsgiving, fasting, and prayer in secret. The secret space is an incognito space. Going into a secret space requires becoming ‘not known’ (incognito) like the seed that falls to the ground and dies. The secret space allows us to invest less resources in our persona (those aspects of ourselves that we want others to see) and focus on the interior life.
This refocus helps us to starve the human ego of attention and forces it to go backstage.
In the secret space of Nazareth (Lk 2:51–52), Joseph the carpenter taught his Son the value of an incognito life that facilitates personal transformation as well as a creative, courageous response in ministry.
For this reason, Jesus “long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there” (Mk 1:35).
What are the crossroad moments in life that invite you to become hidden? Let us remember that being incognito is not escapism. Rather, it aims to transform us so that we emerge with creative and courageous responses to life’s challenges.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.