Bishop Hugh Gilbert’s homily delivered at online Station Mass celebrated at St Joseph’s Church, Woodside, Aberdeen.
Here we are, on St Joseph’s day, in the year of St Joseph, in the church of St Joseph.
Mary must have been so grateful to Joseph. There she was, a betrothed woman, not yet living with him, and inexplicably pregnant. Who would believe her version? Suddenly, she was exposed and vulnerable. Joseph could have handed her over to the law, he could have just walked out of it all. But he listened to his dream, did as the angel counselled, overcame his fear, took her as his wife and was ready to act as father to the mysterious child she carried. He would, in time, name him Jesus. In fact, he would give him his own genealogy and so enable Jesus to be called a son of David, and carry that messianic title. This is topical stuff. Here’s a man guided from above not to harm a woman, not just to save his own skin, but taking responsibility and giving her the security that, in the society of that time, she needed. Mary must have been grateful. Next week we keep the feast of the Annunciation. In response to her angel, she had made her own great Abraham-like act of faith in accepting to be Jesus’ Mother by the Holy Spirit. And now the Lord had put someone beside her, with a parallel faith, sharing and supporting hers. She didn’t have to go it alone. She must have felt that her husband really was a “just man”, the real thing, a worthy descendant of Abraham and David of old. She must have thought how right his name was, after Joseph the son of Jacob, the man who centuries before had rescued his family from starvation and given them refuge in Egypt. Mary must have been proud of him: this quiet, reliable, hard-working, God-fearing man whom God had put beside her and who never let her down. There he was day after day, safeguarding her vocation as the ever-Virgin Mother of God, being father to her son, living with her through the dramas and joys the infancy Gospels relate, and all the daily business of securing work and food and shelter. There he was, the “wise and faithful servant whom the Lord had put over his household” (Lk 12:42), the trustworthy trustee of God’s treasures. I had occasion recently to negotiate an award for a man who has done good work for the Church. His wife was contacted quietly to sound out her feelings on the matter. Her reply was lovely: “my husband deserves any honour he receives.”
Imagine this conversation in heaven. Mary says, “Joseph, I see they’ve put your name in the Eucharistic Prayers.” Joseph: “Have they really? That’s very generous of them.” A little later, Mary says, “I see you are getting a whole year to yourself now.” Joseph: “Good heavens, whatever next!” Mary: “My dear, you deserve every honour you receive.”
Devotion to St Joseph is a living reality in the Church. We can say it began with Mary; it follows on from her devotion to him. It follows on too from the respect, obedience and love that must have grown in the growing Jesus as he “increased in wisdom and stature”. Jesus was born of a virgin, but he was not a fatherless man. Any devotion to St Joseph we muster is our small share in that of Jesus and Mary.
What was St Joseph’s vocation, mission, task? “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”, says the angel in his first dream. In the second and third of his dreams, the angel says, “Rise and take the child and his mother” (Mt 2:13, 20). His vocation was this taking and accepting of Mary and Jesus. It was the acceptance of responsibility. It was to be a husband and father to these two. It was to provide and protect. And a rule of divine providence is that a task given in this life will be continued and extended and come to its full measure in the next. Pope Francis declared this Year of St Joseph because 150 years ago, Bl. Pius IX declared St Joseph patron of the universal Church. The Church is the growth in history of the Body of Christ and the continuation of the motherhood of Mary. (cf. Patris Corde, 5). St Joseph’s care of “the child and his mother” is now care of the Church our mother and of the delicate life of Christ within her, within each of us. It’s that original responsibility extended from heaven into time. It’s a practical care for each of us, for our material and spiritual life. If you need a house or a job or money or food or a spouse, the Catholic instinct is “go to Joseph”. If you’re a migrant or a refugee, if you’re in trouble of any kind, if death is on the horizon, he’s your man. His prayer seems to be part of the way the fatherly providence of God moves ever closer into the details of our lives. We sense the warmth of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and the life of Christ within us. He is the patron of the inner life, of trust and a quiet heart, of clear and bold action. Joseph gets up and does.
In the Gospels, the child and the mother grew in recognition of the vocation God the Father had entrusted to their beloved Joseph. And so the Church too has grown in awareness of how he still fulfils that mission: he’s carer, protector, guardian, trustee of us. Our local Church, our diocesan household and family, are the “child and his mother” in this place, and so I want to – I do – entrust them and us to Joseph’s patronage. It’s simply a matter of recognition of what already is and a plea for more of it. Do join me in this in a moment of silent prayer.
One last thing: I think St Joseph can point us to a perspective, a way of seeing our lives. We can look at things through the lens just of our rights or our gifts and talents. We can look through the eyes of our grievances, or our frustrations and disappointments, as a victim. We can let our failures and weaknesses interpret every experience. But there is another way. Our focus can be the responsibilities entrusted to us: the people, the activities, the forms of caring the Father has allotted us; the gifts of God’s unexpected trust in us. I needn’t list them; they’re all around us; they run from our family to creation. They are “the child and his mother” in our lives. There’s something wholesome and objective in thinking this way. It takes us out of self-absorption. It’s worth cultivating. It can grow into something very life-giving for ourselves and others, clarifying. It shapes the way we pray. St Joseph was “a just man”, someone in tune with God. Perhaps this perspective is a part of that.
I end with a prayer to St Joseph of St Teresa of Avila: “O Glorious Patriarch Saint Joseph, who knows how to make possible the things that are impossible, come to our help in these moments of distress and difficulty Take under your protection the serious situations and difficulties that I bring to you that they may end happily. O my most beloved father, all my confidence is in you. Let it not be said that I have invoked you in vain; and since after Jesus and Mary you are so powerful show me that your goodness equals your power. Amen.”