The Christ Constellation (2) – Saint Joseph
The second star in that bright constellation of holy people closely bonded with Christ is St. Joseph. As it happens, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter last Monday, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, to mark the 150thanniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church by Blessed Pius IX in 1870. The Letter is called “With a father’s heart” (Patris Corde), and is very beautiful. I will leave my own reflections on St. Joseph for another time, because I think it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at what the Pope says about the husband of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus.
I won’t keep saying, “the Pope says this, the Pope says that”, but just lay out before you the content of the Letter.
The introduction begins by saying very simply that it was with a true father’s heart that Joseph loved Jesus. All four Gospels, in fact, refer to Jesus as the “son of Joseph.” And, although the evangelists Matthew and Luke, who speak most of Joseph, don’t give us a lot of detail, they give enough for us to appreciate the kind of man Joseph was and the mission which God the Father gave him.
Joseph was a just man because he was always ready to do God’s will, either as revealed in the Law or through the four dreams he received from God. He obeyed God without reservation and showed especial courage in becoming the legal father of Jesus. He assumed full responsibility for him as if he were his own. He named the child Jesus and to name someone in the bible means to establish a special relationship with them.
Joseph witnessed many events and declarations concerning Jesus around the time of his birth and in his early years. He was involved in very difficult moments including the unexpected pregnancy of Mary, the threat of Herod to kill the child, the flight into Egypt and then the loss of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.
After Our Lady, the Popes have mentioned St. Joseph more than any other saint. Blessed Pius IX declared him Patron of the Catholic Church, Venerable Pius XII proposed him as Patron of Workers and St. John Paul II as Guardian of the Redeemer. We also invoke him as the patron of a happy death. Like the many people who never hit the headlines but whose hidden and daily work keeps society going, Joseph goes unnoticed, a daily discreet and hidden presence, an intercessor, support and guide in times of trouble. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.
The Apostolic Letter on St. Joseph gives a number of descriptions of him.
- The first is that Joseph is a beloved father.
As husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus, Joseph put himself “at the service of the entire plan of salvation”, in the words of St. John Chrysostom. St. Paul VI says that Joseph made his life “a sacrificial service to the mystery of the incarnation and its redemptive purpose. … he turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of himself, his heart and all his abilities, a love placed at the service of the Messiah who was growing to maturity in his home”.
Joseph’s role in the history of salvation has led to countless churches, religious congregations, confraternities and other groups being dedicated to him. Innumerable men and women were passionately devoted to him. St. Teresa of Avila was deeply devoted to him. Encouraged by her own experience of his help, she persuaded others to devote themselves to Joseph.
Every prayer book contains prayers to St. Joseph. Special prayers are offered to him each Wednesday and especially during March, which is dedicated to him. Popular trust in him is seen in the expression “Go to Joseph” which evokes the famine in Egypt. Pharaoh sent the hungry Egyptians and foreigners to Joseph the son of Jacob, but the phrase is now also piously applied to St. Joseph, so that we would go to him in our need.
- A tender and loving father.
As Jesus grew in wisdom, years and favour with God and men, the words of the prophet Hosea can be applied to Joseph: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand, lifting him to his cheeks and bending down to him and feeding him. In response, Jesus will have seen the tender love of God in Joseph, as in Psalm 103: “as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”
Joseph will have learnt from the Scriptures how God the Father acted, and will have acted similarly towards Jesus. God works not only through Joseph’s strengths to form Jesus but also uses his weaknesses. Even his fears for the child and for Mary, even in the misunderstanding at the Temple when Jesus was 12, and even through the undoubted difficulties of life that Joseph will have experienced in trying to look after Jesus and Mary, the Lord God brought about his will. Joseph teaches us that faith in God includes believing that he can work through our frailties. Amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times we want to be in complete control, yet God always sees the bigger picture.
- An obedient father.
In Matthew’s Gospel we see that God revealed his saving plan to Joseph in dreams, a typically biblical way for God to manifest his will. In the first dream, Joseph is helped to resolve the serious problem he had encountered in Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. He believes the Word of God declaring to him that the child is from the Holy Spirit and so immediately takes Mary as his wife. Obedience made it possible for him to surmount his difficulties and spare Mary.
He obeys promptly the difficult message of the second dream to flee into Egypt by night to avoid catastrophe and despite the hardships involved. Once there, he awaits patiently further instructions to return safely home. A third dream provides those instructions which Joseph again obeys immediately and then a fourth dream directs him to settle in Galilee rather than Judea.
Then, in Luke’s Gospel we hear how Joseph undertook the long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary heavily pregnant with Jesus. Luke is especially keen to show how Joseph observed all the prescriptions of the law, both civil and religious: registering for the census in Bethlehem, the rite of circumcision of Jesus, the rite of purification of Mary, the offering of the firstborn son to God. In every situation, Joseph declared his own “fiat”, “let it be done”, like those of Mary at the Annunciation and of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Joseph taught Jesus obedience to his parents but also human obedience to God. Doing the Father’s will would become Jesus’ food, as he himself says in John’s Gospel. In Gethsemane all that training by Joseph and Mary would bear fruit in Jesus’ accepting to drink the cup of suffering for our salvation. Obedient unto death, Jesus had learned that obedience through suffering.
All this makes clear, in the words of St. John Paul II, that “Saint Joseph was called by God to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood” and that in this way, “he cooperated in the fullness of time in the great mystery of salvation and is truly a minister of salvation.”
- An accepting father
Joseph accepted Mary unconditionally. When she became pregnant, he observed the law by resolving to divorce her, but he did it informally to spare her good name, dignity and life. He is a respectful and sensitive man and made his obedience to the law depend on his charity towards Mary. Once he saw the bigger picture through the dream he was given, his integrity proved true.
In life, things often happen we don’t understand. We can react to them sometimes with rebellion. Joseph set aside his own ideas and accepted what happened and took responsibility for it, making it part of his own history. Unless we are reconciled with our own history, we will be unable to take a single step forward, for we will always remain hostage to our own expectations and the disappointments that follow when they don’t materialize.
Joseph’s path is to accept, not seek explanations. But acceptance is not passive resignation. Joseph is courageous and firmly pro-active. He showed the Spirit’s gift of fortitude. Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments. In this way, we become open to a deeper meaning. Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground.
Reality is messy, mysterious and complex. But meaning is found in embracing that reality, not in running away from it. God makes all things work together for the good of those who love him, and that includes even what is called evil, says St. Augustine. Nor should we ever think that believing means finding facile and comforting solutions. The faith Christ taught us is what we see in Saint Joseph. He did not look for shortcuts, but confronted reality with open eyes and accepted personal responsibility for it.
- A creatively courageous father
The first stage of all true interior healing is to accept our personal history and embrace the things we did not choose and even the wrong we have done. 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.
The Gospel infancy stories can often leave us wondering why God did not act more directly and clearly. In fact, God chose to work through the miracle that Joseph was. How creative he was when there was no room at the inn and when warned to save the child from Herod! God always finds a way to outwit the arrogance and violence of worldly powers, provided we show courage and creativity like Joseph. Joseph was able to turn a problem into a possibility by trusting always in divine providence. If at times God seems not to help us, surely this does not mean that we have been abandoned, but instead are being trusted by Him to plan, to be creative, and to find solutions ourselves.
Joseph will have had to face many real and concrete problems in Egypt. The Holy Family will have suffered like any other migrant family. The Gospel frequently says that Joseph gets up, takes the child and his mother and does what God commands. Indeed, Jesus and Mary are the most precious treasures of our faith. We should always consider whether we ourselves are protecting Jesus and Mary, for they are also mysteriously entrusted to our own responsibility, care and safekeeping. In his continued protection of the Church, Joseph continues to protect the child and his mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the child and his mother.
- A working father
Saint Joseph was a carpenter who earned an honest living to provide for his family. From him, Jesus learned the value, the dignity and the joy of what it means to eat bread that is the fruit of one’s own labour. Work is a means of participating in the work of salvation, an opportunity to hasten the coming of the Kingdom, to develop our talents and abilities, and to put them at the service of society and fraternal communion.
Saint Joseph’s work reminds us that God himself, in becoming man, did not disdain work. The loss of employment that affects so many of our brothers and sisters, and has increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, should serve as a summons to review our priorities. Let us implore Saint Joseph the Worker to help us find ways to express our firm conviction that no young person, no person at all, no family should be without work!
- A father in the shadows
The Polish writer Jan Dobraczyński, in his book “The Shadow of the Father”, tells the story of Saint Joseph’s life in the form of a novel. He uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way. Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person.
Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a “most chaste” father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love.
When fathers refuse to live the lives of their children for them, new and unexpected vistas open up. Every child is the bearer of a unique mystery that can only be brought to light with the help of a father who respects that child’s freedom. In every exercise of our fatherhood, we should always keep in mind that it has nothing to do with possession, but is rather a “sign” pointing to a greater fatherhood. In a way, we are all like Joseph: a shadow of the heavenly Father, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). And Joseph is a shadow that follows his Son.
The Apostolic Letter ends with a prayer to Saint Joseph:
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.