Monday, March 20, 2006

Blessed Joseph, her most chaste spouse

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You may notice that the collect for the feast of St Joseph seems a little uncomfortable using the word “father” directly. Joseph is called “guardian” of Jesus, and “spouse” of Our Lady. The Scriptures don’t seem to have the same reserve in language. Jesus is called the Son of Joseph, and others say, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s Son?” Joseph is directly called Jesus’ father. We get those little references in every gospel but Mark’s. Yet in our devotion to Joseph, we have guarded our words, lest we cause misunderstanding or confusion and lead some passer-by to reckon Joseph as Jesus’ father in the procreative sense. Yet, fatherhood is a recurring theme in the lessons for this feast.

A feast of St Joseph was not widely celebrated until its introduction in the diocese of Rome in 1479 by Pope Sixtus IV. After a gradual rise in the popularity of devotion toward St Joseph, Pope Pius IX took the extraordinary step of naming him the Patron of the Universal Church in 1870. When Pope John XXIII added Joseph to the list of saints commemorated in the eucharistic prayer of the Roman Rite in 1962, it was the first time that any change had been made in the Roman Canon of the Mass since the time of Gregory the Great. After 19 centuries, Joseph had taken his rightful place at Mary’s side in the devotional life of the Church.

But however unappreciated Joseph’s role and work may have been in the past, its lasting effect cannot be underestimated. It is no mistake to claim Joseph’s patronage for the Catholic Church. For it was Joseph who was father to the Church’s founder. We call him “guardian” and “spouse” to avoid confusion, but Joseph lived in the reality of that confusion—Father to a Son who called God his Father, husband to a woman pledged to virginity. Like they say, it’s a tough job being a dad. And we honor him now, for who could have done it better than Joseph?

We are all familiar with the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” [Proverbs 22:6]. What does that ancient piece of advice mean? It is to say, a good childhood leads to a good adulthood. Before the skies opened at the baptism of the adult Jesus, there must have been so many moments along the way when Joseph and Mary would say of the boy Jesus, “Look at our beloved son; I am so proud of him.”

The more we ponder it, the more striking it is that God would entrust to any two human beings the rearing of his only-begotten Son. What does this say of human dignity? What does this say of the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary? What Jesus knew about being a man, came from Joseph. What Jesus knew about God as a loving father, came from Joseph. Joseph modeled divine fatherhood for Jesus Christ—God’s own son. Our picture of the holy family is incomplete when we leave out Joseph. Like Mary’s role of mother, his role of father was indispensable. Fatherhood and motherhood, are rightly honored together. Like the twin vocations of marriage and celibacy, their worth is forever tied together—neither can be praised or denigrated apart from the other.

Fathers and mothers incarnate the parental labor of God. Just as men and women represent two complimentary and unique ways of being human, the love of father and mother are complementary and unique revelations of God’s desire for a relationship with every person.
Believe it or not, all this relates to your ministry. We talk a lot about Mary’s role in the Christian life and in the priestly vocation. But we should not let Joseph’s role go unnoticed. As he did for Jesus, Joseph also models fatherhood for priests. Parishioners call their parish priest most of you “Father.” Fathers guide the growth and formation of those they raise. Like Joseph, they are entrusted by God with those whom they have not created. They may have been born from another, but the pastor will be the one God wants to look after them.

Our gospel lesson [Luke 2:41-52] relates the episode in Jesus’ life when Joseph is last mentioned—at this time, Jesus was merely a boy, about 12 years old. And if you look closely, you can see Joseph’s influence in his life. You can see both his view of God shaped by all those moments that they shared together, and you can see the maturity of his calling, beyond his years. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

It was the humble Joseph that had exalted importance of the Temple over his own workshop when sharing his trade with the young boy Jesus. Joseph and Mary did not fully understand the events of that day. But they continued faithfully in their calling as parents. Jesus was obedient to them. Mary treasured all these moments in her heart. And under the mentoring of Joseph, year in and year out, Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. And Jesus grew up instilled with those values that would let him serve others to the point of giving up his own life, as a ransom for many.

St Joseph, chaste spouse and righteous guardian, train us in the way we should go, that like your Jesus, we may not depart from the ministry God has given to us. Amen.

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