St. Joseph

This week we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the second feast for St. Joseph this year. Multiple feasts indicate that St. Joseph must be an important figure for the Church. But why? Why do we study the saints? First and foremost because they point to Jesus Christ and reveal to us a facet or example of how to live the Gospel, of how to love God in the way we live our lives.

St. Joseph teaches us to listen. To hear, there must be quiet. To listen, we must engage what we are hearing. The Feast of the Annunciation is one of my favorite feasts. There is something very beautiful about that hovering moment when all of creation held its breath waiting for Mary’s answer to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement and in the moment when she speaks the loving words of acceptance and abandonment to God’s will: “be it done unto me according to thy word”(Lk 1: 38). While St. Luke’s Gospel depicts the annunciation to Mary, St. Matthew captures another annunciation:

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,’…when Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him”(Mt 1: 19-24).

As in the annunciation to Mary, the angel tells Joseph, “do not be afraid.” In his approach to the difficult situation presented when Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”(Mt 1: 18), Joseph sought to protect Mary. Already he was trying to discern how to handle the event in light of what was pleasing to God, but God had another plan for the way that Joseph should protect Mary and the baby. After the apparition of the angel in his dream, Joseph listened. He received and acted upon the directions of the angel. In doing so, he also embraced God’s special mission for his life. (For another discussion of the annunciation as recounted in Matthew and in Luke, see also Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Infancy Narratives, 14-57.)

Pope Francis addressed the role of St. Joseph at his Inaugural Mass as Pope on March 19 and relates his unique call to our responsibility:

“The vocation of being a ‘protector,’ however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!”

By listening, loving, and following God’s directions in his life, Joseph exemplified the role of “protector,”  this call to love God by protecting each other, by protecting the people with whom we are in relationships of family or friendship, and by protecting the vulnerable. In St. Joseph’s case this is first Mary as his betrothed, then Mary as his wife “with child from the Holy Spirit,” and finally Mary and Jesus his foster-son. The choice of living as “protector” is not always easy, and as in the case of St. Joseph, it requires courage and trust in God’s strength and grace.

Joseph also demonstrated necessary flexibility regarding his own plans to follow God’s plans. Joseph cooperated with the signs and warnings from heaven time and again to protect the Holy Family. When the life of the child Jesus was threatened by Herod’s greed for power, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you’”(Mt 2: 13). Later, “when Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead’”(Mt 2: 19-20).

What else do we know of St. Joseph? He was obedient to God and looked to the law of God in the way he lived his life. He was a “just man” or “righteous man”(Mt 1: 19). In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict relates Joseph the just man to Psalm 1: “Happy are those who do not follow the council of the wicked…but who delight in the law of the Lord, and who ponder his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season”(Ps 1: 1-3).  Living as a “just man” means that Joseph lived in such a way that his faith was integrated into his life. In pondering the law of God, he complements Mary who ponders the life of Jesus in her heart. Joseph’s obedience to God did not merely appear at key moments, out of the blue. He was not able to discern and to follow God’s plans for him and for the Holy Family or to listen and to follow the instructions delivered time and again by the heavenly messenger in moments disconnected or unrelated to the way that he lived his ordinary life. Thus, the life of St. Joseph reminds Christians to look to the Lord, to follow His law, to seek to please Him in our lives. Scripture tells us that Joseph and Mary were devout Jews. After Jesus’s birth, acting in accordance with the law, “they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” and made an offering of “two turtledoves or young pigeons” (Lk 2: 11-24). In the story of the finding of the child Jesus in the temple, we learn that the Holy Family traveled annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Passover. In the life of the Holy Family, the Old Testament meets the New Testament, the Old Covenant the New, the Old Law the New Law.

The relationship between Joseph and Jesus invites us to ponder the mystery of “the humility of God,” God made man. After Joseph and Mary found the child Jesus who had slipped away from His parents to remain in the temple, Jesus returned to Nazareth “and was obedient to them”(Lk 2: 51). Jesus lived in obedience to His parents. There He lived in obscurity as “the carpenter’s son”(Mt 13:55) and as a carpenter Himself. In the quiet of the years before Jesus’s public ministry, Joseph presumably taught the boy his trade, and Jesus followed in His foster-father’s footsteps. Not only did heaven stoop down and kiss the earth in the person of Jesus, true God and true man, but He deigned to live as man: He subjected Himself to the authority of His earthly parents; He took on the trade of His earthly father St. Joseph; He entered into the daily life of the family. This stunning humility that God shows jars us and reminds us that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”(1 Cor 1: 25).

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