Today’s solemnity brings with it two events of immediate significance: the year already begun of special veneration for St Joseph, and, beginning today, a special year celebrating the joy of married love, coming five years after PopeFrancis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Without exhausting the content of this feast, all of this combines to demonstrate the rich tapestry of St Joseph’s personality and vocation in that moment in salvation history, begun with the Virgin’s Yes to the angel, and continued with Christ’s birth and the exceptional role which Joseph was to assume as guardian and guide, model and provider, husband and father, in that first manifestation of Church which was the family and home in Nazareth.
In that vein we might recall for a moment the reflection which Pope St Paul VI gave when he made pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the first instance, Paul VI proposed that we might learn some lessons from the life of the home in Nazareth:
“The lesson of silence…
The lesson of silence: may there return to us an appreciation of this stupendous and indispensable spiritual condition, deafened as we are by so much tumult, so much noise, so many voices of our chaotic and frenzied modern life. O silence of Nazareth, teach us recollection, reflection, and eagerness to heed the good inspirations and words of true teachers; teach us the need and value of preparation, of study, of meditation, of interior life, of secret prayer seen by God alone.
… of domestic life
The lesson of domestic life: may Nazareth teach us the meaning of family life, its harmony of love, its simplicity and austere beauty, its sacred and inviolable character; may it teach us how sweet and irreplaceable is its training, how fundamental and incomparable its role on the social plane.
… of work
The lesson of work: O Nazareth, home of “the carpenter’s son,” We want here to understand and to praise the austere and redeeming law of human labor, here to restore the consciousness of the dignity of labor, here to recall that work cannot be an end in itself, and that it is free and ennobling in proportion to the values – beyond the economic ones – which motivate it. We would like here to salute all the workers of the world, and to point out to them their great Model, their Divine Brother, the Champion of all their rights, Christ the Lord!”
This first great pilgrim pope then goes on to formulate a series of contemporary Beatitudes which resonate still with us today:
“Now we hear its echo reverberating in the souls of men of our century. It seems to tell us: Blessed are we, if in poverty of spirit we learn to free ourselves from false confidence in material things and to place our chief desires in spiritual and religious goods, treating the poor with respect and love as brothers and living images of Christ.
Blessed are we, if, having acquired the meekness of the strong, we learn to renounce the deadly power of hate and vengeance, and have the wisdom to exalt above the fear of armed force the generosity of forgiveness, alliance in freedom and work, and conquest through goodness and peace.
Blessed are we, if we do not make egoism the guiding criterion of our life, nor pleasure its purpose, but learn rather to discover in sobriety our strength, in pain a source of redemption, in sacrifice the very summit of greatness.
Blessed are we, if we prefer to be the oppressed rather than the oppressors, and constantly hunger for the progress of justice.
Blessed are we, if for the Kingdom of God in time and beyond time we learn to pardon and to persevere, to work and to serve, to suffer and to love.
We shall never be deceived.
In such accents do We seem to hear His voice today. Then, it was stronger, sweeter, and more awe-inspiring: it was divine. But as we try to recapture some echo of the Master’s words, we seem to be won over as His disciples and to be genuinely filled with new wisdom and fresh courage.”
This is very much the home of which Joseph was the leader and servant. Although the Gospels offer only snatches of a character portrait of Christ’s foster father, still there is more than enough to come to know him. A man who listened deeply to God’s word being spoken in his life, and responded: the dreams which the Gospels give us are moments in which Joseph, listening to that innermost voice hears not his own but God’s counsel leading him. The divine prompt here shows Joseph wonderfully human: seeds of doubt about how he is to interpret the thoughts which he discerns are natural for all of us, but these are balanced out by his own faithful reflection, leading to action. The Gospels show Joseph, therefore, as a man who takes discernment seriously, as the balanced preparation called for before serious decisions are made and acted upon.
He is given to us as a man who finds not only joy in his marriage and family life but testing and suffering also. With his young family he must experience displacement, exile, becoming a migrant whose homeland becomes a place of threat and discomfort, and so, weighing up matters in his own mind and heart he takes them far away until a time is right when he can bring them home in peace and tranquillity. In this sense, Joseph is a man whose life and experience is lived out by so many today, driven from homeland by lack of economic promise, by sectarianism and hatred, be it for cultural, religious or ethnic reasons, or many others which become the easy vehicle for unjust persecution today. Joseph is represented to us by so many men and women and children who have come to us seeking support, compassion and understanding because these things have been lacking in their own homelands.
He is given to us as a man who comes to learn humility, that is to say, the truth about himself and his vocation and how to live it, as fulfilling for himself and as selfless service to others. The very fact that the Gospels do not mention Joseph after Christ’s early years is, in a sense, testament to the fact that he had already, and completely, realised his own personality and character and so simply lived it. He was entirely at home with God’s will, expressed and manifested in his own life. Joseph is a constant invitation to all of us to find peace in our own vocation, not in a resigned way but rather in a way which celebrates God’s gift to me and the many moments which he gives me to live it.
In Joseph we are given both father and husband, and this in a home, already complete, at Nazareth. It is not to be wondered at that the Church, again and again, cites the home in Nazareth as the model for the complete plan of Christian family living. Those who wish for something else, who demand another model or models for spousal relationships, who demand children as commodities, something to be possessed and not as gifts revealing God’s generosity, who constantly try to redefine the notion and reality of family as it suits their purposes, do not simply reject the Church’s constant and clear teaching but rather reject a model and reality which has divine, and not human, foundations, and yet leads ultimately to a fulfillment which is human in its most complete sense.. The home at Nazareth, and each of the persons who contribute to its fullness, reveals an aspect of Christian living which has been proven true in every well-lived vocation: no vocation comes into fruition without the price of self-renunciation. Christ himself, as witnessed by Paul’s powerful hymn in the letter to the Phillipians, does not cling to his equality with God but empties himself, taking the form of a slave and embracing the cross. Christ leads the way in giving oneself up completely in his total offering. So also with Mary: she prefigures Christ’s pivotal articulation of the leaving aside of his will, and acceptance of the chalice of suffering which is prepared for him, in her own leaving aside of her own will and giving herself over completely to the will of the Father in her answer to the angel’s message. Mary’s vocation to be Virgin Mother and example finds its justification in renunciation. So also with Joseph: amid doubts about the situation surrounding his young bride, about her being with child, about flight and exile, about the mystery of God’s slowly revealed will, he must become father and husband not for himself in the first place but for Mary and Jesus. He sacrifices his own plans, thoughts, and any putative future which may have been in his mind and desire, to build family and relationships about which he could not dream, but which dreams revealed. For each of the personalities in the home at Nazareth life was never about oneself, but always about those two others who were mother, or father, or son!
Perhaps more than ever St Joseph now stands as patron of so many aspects of our life lived in homes and relationships, in the desire that the relationships which we strive to build are formative, compassionate, understanding, redemptive even; quiet, reflective, generous, selfless; faithful, exclusive, irreplaceable – human!
For this special year given over to our cokemoration of St Joseph, Pope Francis has written his own prayer, which we might make our own, not just today but frequently through this year. And in praying we might lean upon our own minds and hearts and ask ourselves seriously: am I simply paying lip service to this commemoration or will this year of veneration, and the man whom we venerate, touch me, change me, transform me.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-