Denis Hurley, archbishop of Durban, tells a story about his arrival in Rome for the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. At the time he was one of the leading figures in the Church's struggle with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and was full of excitement and expectation for what was to come. He met an American bishop, also newly arrived, and asked him about his hopes for the council. 'My hope is that this council will define the bodily assumption of Saint Joseph into heaven', replied the bishop. Archbishop Hurley was, to say the least, taken aback, and asked what the theological principle might be that would support such a definition. 'The principle', replied the bishop, 'that the family that prays together, stays together'.
Well, okay. It is true that Saint Joseph's greatness consists simply in his being with Mary and Jesus, the third member of that family, with his particular mission within it. He was the man the Eternal Father chose and prepared to care for the most precious of God's creatures. Joseph's great feast is on 19 March, a solemnity, when we celebrate his mission within the Holy Family and within the Church, as protector and guide.
There is something ambivalent about today's celebration. It is an optional memory but sometimes celebrated as if it were a feast. The Bible itself is ambivalent about work. Is it our natural condition, to work? Or are we more ourselves when we rest? One of the problems with communism was that it defined human persons in terms of their work (or in terms of their other roles within the great machine). This celebration was established by the Church in response to that way of thinking but may also be in danger of colluding with it. The opening prayer of the Mass might be in danger of being understood in a pelagian way: help us to do our work so that we might gain the appropriate rewards.
The first reading speaks of the sabbath rest of God after his work. At this point the newly created human being is not yet working in the sense in which we experience it. It is only after the fall that work takes on those characteristics that now define it, the things that make it to be work: sweat, tedium, the recalcitrance of nature, alienation from a situation that would be more truly human. Are we made for work or for the sabbath? Which is our more natural situation? The German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a book that has become a classic, Leisure the Basis of Culture. This challenged the definition of the human being as homo faber, man the worker, arguing that this is not the most important thing to be said about us nor our most important activity. The story of Martha and Mary witnesses to the same ambivalence. There is something more important than busyness. We know that we are not to value people simply for their usefulness, for what they can produce or do. At the same time we know that we cannot just sit around and leave others to get on with what needs to be done.
So the ambivalence about today's celebration reflects a theological ambivalence about work. And it is significant that the great feast of Saint Joseph is not this one but the one where we celebrate something more fundamental, not that he gave a good example of hard work to the Divine Child but that he was, simply, with Him and with His mother, exercising the virtues and doing the things that show him to be a just man.