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At the heart of Lent, on March 19th, the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Joseph. As Mary during Advent (Dec. 8th, the feast of the Immaculate Conception). Often represented as a venerable old man with a beard and white hair or bald, looking sad and reserved, worried countenance, bent under the weight of his fate… we would say that he mirrors the mood of a certain ‘Lenten spirit’ of other times!
The values that characterize him (silence, obedience, and service) are also not fashionable. No wonder, therefore, that devotion to this saint has been declining since some time ago. And this despite the apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos (1989), considered the Magna Carta of the theology of Saint Joseph.
However, Saint Joseph is a key figure to understand some of the essential dimensions of Christian vocation. Here are four of them: to protect life, to practice justice, to let God be the protagonist of our lives, to cultivate the mystical dimension.
In Hebrew the name Joseph means “God adds”, “God will increase”. A call to fertility and fruitfulness, to overabundance of life, therefore!
Joseph is a descendant of David (“son of David”), from Nazareth, “carpenter” (Tekton), a profession related to construction. In the Gospels he is presented sometimes as the “husband of Mary”, something unusual because it is the wife that belongs to the husband. But it is also said that Mary is the “wife of Joseph” (Matthew 1:18) and that Jesus is the “carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55).
Joseph anticipates and lives the word of Jesus that “only one is our Father” (Matthew 23:9). He embodies in a very special way this only divine fatherhood (cf. Ephesians 3:15). He’s Father without exercising carnal paternity. But he’s father indeed, because “being a father is first and foremost to be a servant of life and growth” (Pope Benedict XVI).
Like the ancient patriarchs, he also receives communications from God through dreams (three times). This is a sign of a unique vocation and of a particular relationship with God.
Joseph is the last of the ancient patriarchs, but the first of a new progeny, of those “born, not of blood, nor of the impulse of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
This ‘fatherhood’ is a dimension of Christian vocation. We are called, like Joseph, to adopt and protect life. To be fruitful and live in the service of life, without trying to possess it. Joseph teaches us how one can love without ‘owning’ people, unselfishly.
Fatherhood/Motherhood is an urgent value to be promoted today, in a society of ‘vagrancy’ looking for new experiences, rich of ‘prodigal sons’ but poor of ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’. Real Fatherhood/Motherhood means to be able to wait patiently at home, to embrace those children when they return home, disillusioned with life and hungry for love. So often they find their house empty, with no one waiting for them! …
The gospel defines Joseph as a righteous, a “just man” (Matthew 1:19). “Just” because, being faithful, he “adjusts” his life to the Word of his Lord. But also because, being wise, he’s able to “adjust” himself to the events of life, he “fits” into reality. Indeed, when he realizes that Mary is pregnant, his first reaction is to comply with the law (repudiating Mary) but decides to do it in secret. Thus introduces a new element of prudence and wisdom. He maintains his confidence in Mary, without being swayed by suspicion. Why? Because he’s accustomed to “a long listening attendance of another word that touches and penetrates him” (Frédérique Oltra, Carmelite).
Being “just”, he is the “faithful and wise administrator that the Lord puts in front of his house staff” (Luke 12:42). Joseph knows that he’s a “servant” and then has to serve well. It is not enough the good will. So the biblical text speaks of a man “wise and faithful” (Matthew 24:45). “Intelligence without fidelity and fidelity without intelligence are insufficient” to assume the responsibility which God entrusts to us (Benedict XVI).
Practicing justice is part of our vocation. Being “just” as Joseph. A justice that leads us to behave according to justice and occupy our “just” place in life, the one of service. A justice illuminated by love, “the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Something we are lacking today. There is much talk of justice but we lack “righteous men”.
Joseph appears a discreet man, a reserved person. Always “out of the picture,” as an author says, with a certain charm, “Two sisters are defoliating their new religion book, when they see a painting of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus: ‘Look, – says the elder – this is Jesus, and this is his mother’. ‘And where is the father?’ questions her little sister. She thinks for a moment and then says: ‘Ah, he takes the picture’.”
Man of silence, the facts speak for him. Man of obedience, the gospel emphasizes his perfect fulfillment of the instructions received from the angel in a dream (Matthew 1:24). As the Song of Songs says: while sleeping, his heart remains vigilant (5:2).
Forgetful of himself, Joseph lives for “the baby and his mother” (Matthew 2:13.19). Like John the Baptist, he believes that he must decrease in order that they may grow. His life belongs to them, fully. And so, at a certain moment he ‘disappears’ … not to overshadow his son!
Each of us is called to follow this testimony. To be discreet as Joseph, putting our lives in the service of Christ’s mission. To learn to put ourselves aside, to withdraw behind the scenes. It is not easy nor obvious. We live in a society that privileges personal-fulfillment and protagonism. From our childhood we dream with our own life project. But vocation implies renouncing such human dream (as with José and Mary) to embrace God’s dream. To learn to eclipse that God’s plan may be realized in us!
Joseph is the saint of silence, one that never speaks. But his silence is a rich and deep one that challenges us. Why this silence? Because Joseph lives “inside” the mystery! This is not a matter of words but an attitude of life.
Given the unexpected and incomprehensible fact of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph thinks to retire quietly. It is the word of the angel: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because she conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20) which introduces Joseph into the mystery, as Gabriel did with Mary.
“This word does not eliminate the mystery, does not explain what really happened, or how. This word introduces Joseph into the mystery that had already absorbed Mary. Joseph is no longer in front but inside the mystery. It is not like the people of Israel in front of the cloud in the desert, he is introduced within the Cloud, as Moses or as the three apostles on Mount Tabor” (theologian Borel).
Before he was ‘out’ of the mystery, facing it, and so doubted and feared. Now he’s led by it, as Mary after her ‘fiat’. Now, ‘inside’ the mystery, even without understanding it, he cannot doubt about it.
To “dwell” in the mystery of God is the essential aspect of every vocation. This requires a willingness to let oneself be introduced in it. Otherwise, the one called by God will remain ‘out’ and will not find motivations to live up to his vocation. He will be, at best, a good ‘employee’ or a ‘mercenary’ and, at worst, a ‘parasitic’ or “unfaithful servant” (Luke 12:46).
In conclusion, Joseph is certainly not the man portrayed by a certain iconography. Surrounded by mystery, within a family that he loved and where he felt loved, identified with his vocation of protecting the Author of Life, exercising his profession competently, he was… A HAPPY MAN, a son of his Son’s Resurrection! (Luke 20:36)
Fr. Manuel Joao Pereira (Comboni missionary)