By Fr. Roger J. Landry
Today is the feast of St. Joseph, the Worker. Because St. Joseph is such an important saint, I figured it would be worthwhile to have a longer reflection! You would expect no less.
It’s customary that when we think of the Holy Family, our attention goes first to the mysteries of Jesus’ birth about which we hear in today’s Gospel. Most of our attention goes as it should to the baby Jesus, the eternal Son of God, lying in the manger, adored by angels and animals, wise men and shepherds. Many of us also naturally turn out of devotion to his mother, holding him in swaddling clothes, nursing him, loving him, treasuring all of these miraculous events in her contemplative heart. She was chosen by God with great specificity. When the fullness of time had come, God would not send the Archangel Gabriel to find any young virgin, but rather he would go to a specific village in a precise nation to greet a particular girl espoused to a given man. God had intervened preveniently in that girl’s life many years before, preserving her free from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. And through the covenantal prepartion God had given to his chosen people, through the saving miracles, the law and prophetic utterances, this young girl would grow up with a heart as prepared, pure, fertile as her womb.
But we can be tempted, like most Christians throughout most of the first 1400 years of the Church, to treat the man to whom the Blessed Virgin was espoused almost as a divine afterthought or some kind of ancient “player-to-be-named-later” in a package deal for his young wife. As Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies show us, however, he was the penultimate piece in a divine cascade stretching all the way back to King David, to Abraham and even to Adam. It was through him that Jesus, under Jewish law and mentality, would be a descendent of David.
St. Joseph’s relative obscurity probably pleases him very much, since he more than anyone would want our focus on Jesus and Mary, just as his always was. But I believe that Jesus and Mary would want us to give more attention to him, as has been given over the course of the last five hundred years and especially the last century. Jesus and Mary deeply loved Joseph, as he deeply loved them, and they would want us to enter into their love for him so that Joseph might strengthen us in our vocations just as he supported them. So today on this great solemnity of the chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin, the guardian and foster-father of the eternal Word, it would be good for us to spend some time meditating on the third person of the “earthly trinity” that constituted the Holy Family, because he, more than anyone, can teach us how best to relate to Jesus and Mary in Bethlehem, Nazareth and beyond.
Why was St. Joseph chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God? One reason was clearly because he was a descendent of King David and therefore any foster child would, according to the law, be a son of David, too. But there would have been many eligible descendents of Israel’s greatest king alive at the time. Doubtless some of them would have been scholars of the law and capable of training Jesus according to his humanity to be a rabbi rather than a carpenter. Some others would likely have had much more clout and been able to avoid being treated as nobodies by the innkeepers when Jesus was about to be born. Others would probably have been wealthy and much more capable than Joseph of providing for Mary and Jesus, so that at Jesus’ presentation, for example, they would have been able to offer a lamb instead of two pigeons.
But it’s obvious that to God the qualities that Joseph lacked were insignificant compared to those he had. God the Father, in whom all fatherhood finds its roots, saw in him the qualities he wanted to raise his Son, to teach him how to be a man — and a man of God — according to his humanity. God the Father entrusted to him his most precious treasures and he and those treasures would want us to trust in him as well. What are those qualities? What can we learn from him to become more like him in relating to God the Father, in relating to the Lord Jesus, in relating to the Blessed Mother?
First, Joseph was a good man. St. Matthew writes that he was a “just” or “righteous” man. He was “holy,” a man in a right relationship with God. He may not have been flashy on the outside but he shone on the inside. As Pope Benedict once said in a rare play on words, St. Joseph “ad-justed” his life to the word of God.
Second, he was “righteous” precisely because he was docile and obedient to God. .
We see his prompt obedience in his response to the angel of God interventions in his dreams. When God sent his angel in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to receive Mary into his home because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Joseph awoke and “did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” After Jesus’ birth, when the angel appeared to him again and instructed him to “rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you,” he rose, awakened them, and began their journey that night. A few years later, when the angel appeared to him in Egypt and told him to return with them to Israel, he did.
It would have been easy for Joseph, even in a pre-Freudian age, to deconstruct these dreams according to the standard of his conscious desires. Each dream was asking him to do something totally life-changing: to alter completely his notion of what his marriage would entail, so as to be the chaste spouse of the Virgin and the foster father of the Son of God and savior of the world; to leave his job and his relatives completely behind and journey through the desert to an unknown land; to return once life was settled. But in each of these circumstances, Joseph acted immediately.
He was so prone to hear God’s word and put it into practice, however, that at the merest indication of the Lord, he didn’t debate or negotiate, but obeyed. St. Joseph never saw obeying God as incompatible with his own good, but rather as the foundation for his own good. God’s omnipotence was not seen as a threat to his manliness because St. Joseph didn’t equate manliness with being in control, but rather in being responsible and responsive to God and others. His obedience made him capable of sharing mysteriously in the fatherhood of God the Father.
Joseph was humble enough to sacrifice whatever his own plans might have been to fulfill God’s plans, embracing his vocation to help Jesus and Mary accomplish theirs.
The, St. Joseph was faithful. He was obedient because he believed.
When the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” he did as the angel had commanded him precisely because he believed. To trust God does not mean to see everything clearly according to our criteria, it does not mean to carry out what we have planned; to trust God means to empty ourselves of ourselves and to deny ourselves, because only one who accepts losing himself for God can be "just" and faithful as St. Joseph, that is, can conform his own will to God's and thus be fulfilled. Like Abraham, he is a father in faith to us, responding to one of the greatest mysteries. His example invites us to imitate his loving trust, his total abandonment to divine Providence, to take God "at his word", that is, without clearly seeing his design..
Pope Benedict said in Cameroon three years ago, “Throughout all of history, Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news.”
He gave himself totally to Mary and to Jesus. His faith is truly heroic! We need that heroic faith!
Fourth, St. Joseph is humble. He was humble enough to allow Jesus to obey him. He must certainly have taught Jesus to pray, together with Mary. In particular Joseph himself must have taken Jesus to the Synagogue for the rites of the Sabbath, as well as to Jerusalem for the great feasts of the people of Israel. Joseph, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, would have led the prayers at home both every day — in the morning, in the evening, at meals — and on the principal religious feasts.
Origen writes that “Joseph understood that Jesus was superior to him even as he submitted to him, and, knowing the superiority of his charge, he commanded him with respect and moderation. Everyone should reflect on this: frequently a lesser man is placed over people who are greater, and it happens at times that an inferior is more worthy than the one who appears to be set above him. If a person of greater dignity understands this, then he will not be puffed up with pride because of his higher rank; he will know that his inferior may well be superior to him, even as Jesus was subject to Joseph” Man of action
Jesus was already at 12 capable of dazzling the greatest masters of the law, and yet he went up to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary. What an incredible mystery!
Like every child, Jesus learned about life and how to act from his parents. How could we not think, with deep wonder, that he must have developed the human aspect of his perfect obedience to the Father's will particularly by following the example of his father Joseph, "a just man" (cf. Mt 1:19)?
Fifth, St. Joseph shows us what it means to be a good father.
There is but one fatherhood, that of God the Father, the one Creator of the world, “of all that is seen and unseen”. Yet man, created in the image of God, has been granted a share in this one paternity of God (cf. Eph 3:15). Saint Joseph is a striking case of this, since he is a father, without fatherhood according to the flesh. He is not the biological father of Jesus, whose Father is God alone, and yet he lives his fatherhood fully and completely. To be a father means above all to be at the service of life and growth.
There are four things to being a good father:
First, one must be a protector. St. Joseph guarded Mary’s life and reputation against the possibility of death by stoning as a result of her having become pregnant outside of marital intimacy. Even before Joseph received the word of the angel that Mary had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Joseph, a just man who must have been filled with questions and suffering, protected Mary. But that was just the beginning. He protected Jesus and Mary from Herod ‘s envy and murderous soldiers, even at the cost of his job in Nazareth, guiding them on the difficult escape route into Egypt. Leo XIII entrusted the Church to his protection. The Pro-life movement, and the unborn, should in a special way be entrusted to his care.
Second, one must be a provider. which is the other main attribute of fatherhood. Until his death, in many quiet ways known only to God the Father, St. Joseph worked hard to provide for Mary and Jesus, passing on to Jesus his own trade. But St. Joseph provided more than just food, clothing and shelter for the Holy Family. He also enabled, according to his means, for their spiritual nourishment, taking them to the Temple for the Jewish rites and feasts. We see a glimpse of this at Jesus’ presentation as well as when Jesus was found in the temple at the age of 12 (Lk 2:27; 46-50).
Third, one must be of loving service. St Joseph lived at the service of his Wife and Divine Son; for believers, he thus became an eloquent example of how "to reign" is "to serve". He can be seen as a helpful lesson in life especially by those who have the task of being "fathers" and "guides" in the family, at school and in the Church.
Fourth, he is a model of chaste love. His life shows us that the full gift of self toward another does not necessarily have to involve genital relations. He loved Mary and that meant that he was willing to dedicate himself to what was best for her and for the divine son she was carrying. He put all his love and his life at the service of their vocations, and in doing he fulfilled his own vocation. Chastity is a virtue that helps a person to have self-mastery — to control one’s sexual impulses rather than be controlled by them — so that one can give oneself to others in the way that is best for them. Chastity is what allows man to be a protector of women rather than a predator. In his chaste love of Mary, he learned how to grow as a man, and in her chaste reciprocal love, he was blessed beyond measure.
He welcomed the mystery that was in Mary and the mystery that was Mary herself. He loved her with great respect, which is the mark of all authentic love. Joseph teaches us that it is possible to love without possessing.
There is a great need for fathers today. In a March 15, 2000 speech at the Cathedral of Palermo, Sicily, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity.” He went on to say that that crisis, a true “dissolution of fatherhood,” comes from reducing fatherhood to a merely biological phenomenon — as an act of generation, sometimes even carried out in a laboratory — without its human and spiritual dimensions. That reduction not only leads to the “dissolution of what it means to be a son or a daughter,” but, on a spiritual plane, impedes our relationship to relate to God as he is and revealed himself. God, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “willed to manifest and describe himself as Father.” Human fatherhood provides us an analogy to understand the fatherhood of God, but “when human fatherhood has dissolved, all statements about God the Father are empty.” The crisis of fatherhood, therefore, leaves the human person lost, confused about who God is, confused about who he is, confused about where he has come from and where he is going. That’s why Cardinal Ratzinger says the crisis of paternity is perhaps the most important element threatening man. A father needs to be more than just “there,” protecting and providing for their kids materially, not just giving them the love every child needs from a father, but also protecting, providing and loving spiritually. All children belong to God and all Fathers can learn from St. Joseph, all children are made in God’s image, and all fathers can learn from St. Joseph how to model the fatherhood of God the father in raising such precious gifts and lead them to God. St. Joseph is able to teach us the deepest meaning of fatherhood (B16)
Sixth, St. Joseph is hard-working, but always centered his work on the Lord. John Paul II said about him: “In this human growth Joseph guided and supported the boy Jesus, introducing him to the knowledge of the religious and social customs of the Jewish people and getting him started in the carpenter's trade, whose every secret he had learned in so many years of practicing it. This is an aspect that I feel compelled to stress today: Saint Joseph taught Jesus human work, in which he was an expert. The Divine Child worked beside him, and by listening to him and observing him, he too learned to manage the carpenter's tools with the diligence and the dedication that the example of his foster father transmitted to him. This too is a great lesson, beloved brothers and sisters: if the Son of God was willing to learn a human work from a man, this indicates that there is in work a specific moral value with a precise meaning for man and for his self-fulfillment.”
John Paul II called him, the “very epitome of the Gospel of work,” making not only things, but forming himself and his family in virtue in the process. He is an icon of the synthesis of faith, life and work.
In the rhythm of the days he spent at Nazareth, in the simple home and in Joseph’s workshop, Jesus learned to alternate prayer and work, as well as to offer God his labour in earning the bread the family needed
For every worker, Joseph has shared their experience, can understand their problems; take up their anxieties, direct your efforts toward the building of a better future. Saint Joseph stands before you as a man of faith and prayer.
Seventh, a silent man of action
Lastly, St. Joseph is a man of action. He never says a word in Sacred Scripture and yet his actions are remembered to this day. He knew that the body language of his deeds was far more eloquent than his words. He was a “doer of the Word” and not just an “idle listener” of it (Jn 1:22). Like his foster son according to the law, he put his stock in “truth and action” more than in “word or speech.” But his silence is also important, because it shows us he was steeped in contemplation of the mystery of God, a silent listening to the Word he was raising, a silence woven of prayer and adoration of God’s holy will. Pope Benedict said back in 2005 that we should all allow ourselves to be “infected” with St. Joseph’s silence in a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God's voice.
“Ite ad Ioseph.” This Latin expression, taken from the story of the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis, has been applied by Church tradition to St. Joseph. We’re all called to go to Joseph. He is, par excellence, the “wise and faithful servant whom the Lord put in charge of his household (Lk 12:42). We ask him to help us adore the same Jesus he adored in the manger in Bethlehem, throughout his earthly life and now at his right side.