March 11, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

St. Joseph's humility and faith
are a model for us all

This year, we celebrate St. Joseph’s feast day just before the beginning of Holy Week. I am happy we get to celebrate him before entering into the spirit of the Passion, death and rising of his foster son. I love St. Joseph because he is an accessible patron for any one of us.

In 1870, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Joseph patron of the universal Church. Pope Pius XII, in effect, proclaimed him patron of workers when he established the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Since he died with Mary and Jesus at his side, he is also the patron of the dying. I have long considered him the patron of fathers. He is patron of numerous countries around the world.

Why is Joseph so popular in Catholic devotion? While he appears in the Gospels, we don’t have a single word of his.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke record challenging incidents about the experience of Joseph that tell us of the attentiveness of his faith. He was alert to receive crucial messages from God deputing him as head and protector of the Holy Family. Without his belief that all things are possible for God, Joseph could never have fulfilled that role.

The preface for the feast of St. Joseph calls him “that just man, that wise and loyal servant, whom you placed at the head of your family. With a husband’s love he cherished Mary, the virgin Mother of God. With fatherly care, he watched over Jesus Christ, your Son, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Joseph was a just man in that he wanted to observe Jewish law in regard to Mary’s being with child and, at the same time, he wanted to respect Mary’s role as spouse of the Holy Spirit. Only confidence in God and his messengers could enable Joseph to step up to his role as legal parent of Jesus and faithful husband of Mary. He was graced with wisdom and lived the virtue of loyalty to his betrothed.

He accepted responsibility and hardship for the sake of Jesus and Mary. One need only reflect on what it must have meant to make arrangements for the birth of Jesus in the unfamiliar circumstances of a strange town or what it meant to leave home suddenly with his refugee family and travel to Egypt under unfriendly circumstances. He had to be a brave and adaptable person. He also knew the anxiety of having lost his son on one occasion, only to find him in the Temple.

Joseph had the privilege of teaching his craft to his son. He helped the Son of God become a carpenter and builder. He and Mary also fulfilled the role of teachers of their son. They introduced him to the way of praying and believing in the Jewish tradition.

One of my favorite images of St. Joseph is depicted in a mural by Benedictine Father Donald Walpole outside of St. Joseph Oratory in the crypt of the Archabbey Church at Saint Meinrad. The subject of the mural is the flight into Egypt. Mary and Jesus are seated on a donkey led by Joseph on foot. He has a staff in one hand—and Jesus has hold of his finger on the other hand. The text at the top of the painting reads: “The hand of the humble Joseph guides that of the Almighty.”

That image of the humble Joseph speaks volumes for anyone who has serious responsibilities for a family. It speaks volumes for anyone who accepts serious responsibility for leading others in faith. It speaks volumes for the countless people who serve their family or their neighbors or the poor or the suffering or lonely in the background shadows. It speaks of a patron for those who serve without much recognition or applause or commendation.

Many of us think of our parents. I know I do. I also think of grandparents and godparents, teachers and priests, who by simply doing what they did—their job if you will—had a profound influence in my life. I think of them often. In fact, during the Lenten season I offer each day for deceased loved ones who were important in my upbringing—up to the present day. They are many and varied. And I also offer my Lenten day and practices for living folks who make an impact on my life generously and, for the most part, in an unassuming way.

In my mind, lots of people live the life of St. Joseph. He is such an accessible person because he was so down to earth. We don’t have a single word that he said, but we have the powerful witness of his eloquent obedience to God’s will and loving care of Mary and Jesus. †

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