Monday, 19 March 2018

Saint Joseph

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Psalm 89; Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a / Luke 2:41-51a

Joseph was a just or righteous man.This is high praise in the Bible and places him among the greatest of the patriarchs, prophets and kings. It puts him in the first place in the company of Abraham, whose faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham's faith was to hope against hope. He trusted in God as the One who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist. Supernatural revelations led Abraham to leave all that was familiar and to journey beyond the boundaries of his homeland. Supernatural revelations led Joseph to marry Mary and to care for her son as his own, sharing with them the perilous experiences of the first years of Jesus' life.

The promise to Abraham, transmitted not by physical descent as much as by spiritual affinity, is given to those who believe that with God all things are possible, with God nothing is impossible. Joseph, clearly, belongs with those who believe in this way.

Joseph is great precisely as a man, not just as a human being. His role in the history of our salvation is to be the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, things only a man can do. He is the protector of his wife and child, charged by the Eternal Father with the task of keeping them safe and providing for them a home in which they might flourish. In that home Mary has the serenity in which to ponder in her heart all that is being revealed about the Child. She has the security of Joseph's respect for her chastity, the unique way in which she was the Bride of the Spirit and the Mother of God. In that home established by Joseph, Jesus has a safe place in which to grow in wisdom and in strength. Who knows what reflection of the Eternal Father he saw in the features and in the character of Joseph.

We can say then that Joseph was great for doing well the ordinary things men are called to do, and for doing these things for the two human creatures whom God loves above all others. Umberto Eco finishes one of his novels with the hero of the story deciding that the meaning of life is to be found in 'loving a woman and having a child'. Joseph lives this vocation to the full, and lives it in the most extraordinary circumstances. With Chesterton, and developing earlier traditions about his role, we can speak of Joseph as the greatest of Knights, the perfect fulfillment of the medieval ideals of chivalry. Those ideals included respect for women, care for the weak, strength in protecting the vulnerable, courage in fighting for what is just.

As Mary is entrusted to the disciples to be their Mother, the Church has come to regard Joseph as protector and provider not just for the family at Nazareth but for the whole Church. As well as praying to him for the grace of a happy death - this good man who died, tradition reasonably believes, in the company of Mary and of Jesus - we are encouraged to pray to him for all our material needs, for the wellbeing of our households, and for the happiness of our families.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph together make up a very unusual family. On one side this Holy Family is an earthly reflection of the Eternal Family of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. On the other side it is the perfect human family, the first domestic Church, a nuclear family whose life is established simply on faith, and hope, and love. Joseph is often forgotten as the Mother and Child take centre stage. Pictures representing Joseph holding the Child are rare and all the more wonderful for that. Often he is to one side, or in the shadow, sometimes an elderly paternal figure compared with Mary, sometimes (more likely) a strong man in his prime, charged with an exceptional mission.

The scriptures and the Christian tradition have some few things to say about Saint Joseph, the just man, wise and faithful, who was put in charge of God's household. What has been handed on to us is enough to give us a clear sense of a very good man who loved his woman and cared for his child. The fact that the woman is the ever-virgin Mary and the child is the world's Redeemer transforms this ordinary goodness into an extraordinary holiness.

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