Saturday, March 21, 2009


Throughout this month, traditionally dedicated to St. Joseph, I have been reading and meditating a lot about him, in particular the traditional Litany of St. Joseph.
Rooted in the liturgical history of the Jewish People through the refrain of petition and response found, for example in many Psalms, litanies in the Roman Catholic life of prayer are divided into those which can be used in public prayer, of which there are currently seven approved including the Litany of St. Joseph, and those which are approved for the private use of the faithful, such as the Litany to the Infant of Prague.
I will be alternating over the coming weeks further essays and reflections on “The Thin Place” and reflections, given the global economic crisis, on Church social teaching.
Given the times in which he lived and the very depths of his absolute surrender to the will of the Father, indeed his very fidelity to his vocation to love and serve Jesus and Mary, as a man of faith, it seems appropriate to take time and reflect through the litany on this good man, a true model for our times.
Should you not be familiar with this Litany, do not have a copy; it is easy to Google for it at
Sacred Scripture shows us clearly St. Joseph is both the embodiment of the history of the Chosen People, bearing within their lives and liturgy the history of promised redemption, of the Messiah,[ cf. Mt. 1: 1-16 ] and St. Joseph is likewise a type of connecting link between the Old Testament of promise and the New Testament of fulfillment.
Child of the First Covenant, St. Joseph is the guardian of the New Covenant in the person of Jesus and thus St. Joseph is rightly the Protector of the Church.
Thus in the litany St. Joseph is first invoked both as noble son of the House of David and as the Light of the Patriarchs.
While we do not have, neither in the Holy Gospels nor in other reliable sources, a detailed biography of St. Joseph, we can garner insights about the man from what is clearly there within the sparse words in Scripture.
If we contemplate Matthew 1: 18-25, and know the recorded history of this period of the Roman Empire, then each detail within Sacred Scripture can be unfolded and we can imagine the reality of an extraordinary man.
Clearly St. Joseph loved Mary and she him and this love had deepened into mutual gift of self, one to the other, growing and deepening to the point of betrothal and St. Matthew presents Joseph and Mary to us on the threshold of holy marriage.
Most probably Joseph the carpenter if he had not built their house, soon to be home, entirely by his own hands would certainly have built the furnishings and Mary, as any woman of the time, would have been skilled at making clothing, gardening, cleaning, cooking, in a word would have learnt from her mother and other women the skills necessary to make a house into a home.
In a word, life for Joseph, obviously a profoundly good man of complete integrity and great charity, a man of faith and prayer, would have been unfolding as ordinarily as that of any other young man of his day.
However we should remember Joseph and Mary and their contemporaries were an oppressed people living in a land occupied by a foreign power, ruled by a despotic traitor of a king.
While the suffering of countless husbands and wives and families in today’s global economic crisis is very real, raw, widespread, life in the days of Joseph and Mary would also have been marked by poverty, uncertainty, oppression.
Presumably very close to the wedding day it became apparent Mary was pregnant and the shock for Joseph would have been overwhelming.
It would have appeared the woman whom he loved completely, had betrayed him.
The starkness with which St. Matthew describes the whole event reveals the immense stress and pain in the depths of the being, the person, the man, the righteous man who nonetheless places love of Mary, places selflessness and truly manly protective-servant love before himself or his needs.
By choosing informal divorce, rather than a public forum where Mary would have been seen by one and all as a betrayer, indeed as guilty of adultery under the Law and vulnerable to death by stoning, Joseph would have been seen as a cad of the worst order, presumed to have chosen to abandon his pregnant wife.
Most likely he would have been shunned and had to leave for some other part of the country.
How long this agony went on, how long the struggle, how intense his prayer for the strength to make the loving choice cannot be gleaned from the text as St. Matthew describes these events staccato like.
We do know, and who has not been in some deep decision-needed agony when it seemed God was silent, it is only after Joseph has chosen selfless love of Mary over his reputation and legitimate heart’s need, that God sends the Angel to reveal to Joseph the truth.
Thus the Litany exalts Joseph as Mary’s husband.
However more is asked of him and so while he is to be a husband, it is to be so without the physical intimacy and bond of spouses and so he is lauded as, in truth, the Chaste Guardian of the Virgin.
Even more is asked of Joseph, for he is to be a father, he is to have a son, he is indeed to name his son, the traditional prerogative joy of a father, but he will not have a son issued from his own body, only from his heart, hence his is forever known as the Foster-father of the Son of God.
This is where St. Joseph is patron of all priests who are true fathers of sons and daughters: that is of every human being, born not of our bodies but of the suffering of our hearts.
Eventually to the eyes of everyone else Joseph and Mary were married, settled into their home, awaiting the birth of their first child.
Like millions of couples around the world this very day they lived, embraced, and yes endured, the realities of ordinary daily life.
They would have followed the life of faith and prayer of every observant Jewish family of the day, but all of this living unfolding within the stark reality of being an occupied country and an oppressed people.
Recent history well documents the cruel forced movement of peoples by invading armies, oppressive regimes, so we should be able to see and hear in our hearts the tremendous suffering of the upheaval recorded by St. Luke 2: 1-5.
Today countless families are being uprooted because of the global economic crisis causing massive unemployment, loss of home, possessions.
People are being forced to be on the move. Many to return to their ‘ancestral’ home, to move in with elderly parents, or other relatives.
In many cities the ‘regular’ ranks of the homeless are becoming swollen with entire families and in some places already tent cities, harking back to the dark days of the first Great Depression, are becoming common place.
When the Angel stressed the truth the Child would be Emmanuel, God-with-us, it is because there is no experience common to human beings unknown to Christ.
Even before He was born, in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb and Joseph’s heart, Jesus was on the move in the midst of the oppressed and the homeless.
St. Luke’s simple statement of there being no room in the inn [2:6,7] and of Mary placing her newborn Child in a manger, is precisely the cold reality of a family today huddled inside a cardboard box.
Mostly we are familiar with the account of the Angels giving glory, the Shepherds coming to see the Child, but surely, though not stressed in the Gospels, St. Joseph must have been extremely vigilant over Mother and Child.
At the same time he must have been working, somehow, for it is doubtful they were in the stable rent-free and it may well be that the forced relocation to Bethlehem meant a complete starting over, thus Joseph must have laboured and earned money to care for his little family, since St. Matthew, when telling of the visit of the Magi refers to a house wherein the Magi encountered Jesus [Mt. 2:11].
How many families in our own day have to start over?
However long the time was in Bethlehem, certainly we know from St. Luke long enough to fulfill the waiting period before the purification rites {cf. Lk. 2:22ff} all too soon once again Joseph would have to uproot his family.
This time to flee: to save the very life of the Child.
St. Matthew [2:13-18] reveals to us those horrific events and once again, from the earliest days of His life on earth, Christ our God is in the midst of human suffering, experiencing the very harsh reality of every persecuted person, of all people’s targeted for extinction: in the camps of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Killing Fields, in Darfur and places barely reported on such as what is happening in the darkness of North Korea.
Even more, no person has even been or is a refugee fleeing oppression, or an immigrant seeking a new life, or a migrant in their own homeland as is happening again and again today as factories are shuttered and families must go in search of work and shelter, no person endures such things alone, for Christ has endured all.
St. Joseph is rightly called Defender of Christ because from the moment he chose to protect Mary from public shame to the events of Christ’s birth, to saving His life from the death squads of Herod, indeed as any father, Joseph fulfilled his role of protector until the day he died.
In the eloquent words of Pope John Paul in his Apostolic Exhortation on St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church #14, referencing the flight into Egypt: “...divine providence once again had recourse to Joseph”, noting further that: “...Joseph, guardian and cooperator in the providential mystery of God, even in exile watched over the one who brings about the New Covenant”.
Thus rightly is St. Joseph invoked further in the Litany as being Head of the Holy Family, just, prudent, valiant, obedient and faithful.
As Pope Benedict noted during First Vespers for the Solemnity of St. Joseph just a few days ago, stressing how fully and completely St. Joseph lived out fatherhood, “To be a father means above all to be at the service of life and growth..” and in this we see too how St. Joseph is a model for everyone in these days of such suffering in all its forms throughout the world for St. Joseph, as the Holy Father notes: “For the sake of Christ..experienced persecution, exile and the poverty which this entails.”
Is not the plight of millions of families because of the economic crisis with the attendant sudden unemployment and loss of home an experience of persecution, exile and poverty as raw as that of those families who suffer because of political or religious persecution?
If men especially, as husband and fathers, look to St. Joseph they will have the courage to remain selfless and steadfast at the service of wife and children, for to serve them is to serve Christ, to endure suffering for their sakes is to endure for the sake of Christ.

1 comment:

Adoro said...

As a single woman, I, too, look to St. Joseph. My Mom, after she and Dad were divorced, really grasped onto him because, as she said, he is the patron of "women alone." And I know that he's been there for me more than I'll ever know.