Today, 19th March, is the feast of St Joseph. Next Friday, 25th March, is that of the Annunciation. The two go together. In the middle of Lent, they take us back to Nazareth and Bethlehem, to the beginnings of Jesus’ life and to the mystery of the Incarnation, to the “first things” of salvation. They help us see who this Jesus is who will die and rise in Jerusalem, and they show us the God-given roles of Joseph and Mary. In March, we feel spring breaking through, and in these feasts we feel God’s grace bursting out in the coming of his Son.
There are beautiful patterns here.
Mary’s role was to provide human flesh – our stuff – for the Word of God to take on and come close to us. Mary’s role was to be the mother of Jesus, with all the 24/7 commitment this involves. St Joseph’s role, first of all, was to be a “son of David”, that is a descendant of the messianic line stretching back to David, son of Jesse. He gave Jesus a Davidic connection, and therefore Messiahship. He could legitimately be “called Christ” (Mt 1:16), and Nathan’s prophecy in our first reading find its full realisation.
Let’s explore these two vocations further. They both spring from God’s eternal predestining, not from human engineering, as it were. They were both predestined in relation to Christ. It does us good to have a sense of these things. Everything flows from God: Mary’s predestining to be mother of God and St Joseph’s predestining – to quote St Bernardine of Siena – to be the faithful foster-father and guardian of the most precious treasures of God, his Son and his [mother].” Before Joseph thought of Joseph, before Joseph knew what he was about, God thought of Joseph. God carried him in his own eternity as God, and had for him a good plan, thoughts of peace and not of affliction, a purpose, a mission and a task. And as with Mary, as with Joseph, so at our level with us. “In love”, says St Paul, “he – God the Father – predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will.” Before we thought of ourselves, God thought of us. There’s a first thought as we remember St Joseph. It gives us another perspective on ourselves.
And a second is suggested by the 2nd reading. Its focus is the faith of Abraham. Centuries before, the Lord had made known his will to Abraham, that this old man was to be the father of a great nation. And Abraham, we are told, put his faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. As with Abraham, so with Mary. The visit of an angel, a revelation of God’s will, of her vocation, and her believing response: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word”. And so with St Joseph: told by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife and assume fatherly responsibility for her child, followed by his believing response: “when he awoke, he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do.” This is what St Paul, elsewhere, calls “the obedience of faith.” So once again, as with Abraham, as with Mary, as with Joseph, so with us: we are called to give the obedience of faith to the disclosure of God’s eternal purposes for us. We may only learn them piecemeal. We are not fed the whole meal all at once. We might even say the Lord gives us snacks. Four separate times in dreams St Joseph was shown the next step. We remember Newman’s hymn: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” “Faith”, Pope Francis has written, “is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey” (Lumen Fidei, 57). Obediently, though, but we embark on the journey, as Joseph and Mary did. We follow Christ, and we know that the hand of the eternal Father is always over us and the strength of the Holy Spirit within us.
So, first the predestining purposes of God; second, our obedience of faith, and third, the “sacrament” of daily life: daily bread, daily work, daily stuff. Mary had all the business of being a mother. St Joseph, though he was not biologically responsible for Jesus, had every other fatherly responsibility for Jesus, and though we hold that Mary preserved her virginity even as mother and wife, St Joseph had every other husbandly relationship with her. He lived out his predestined mission in ordinary life. He is the great saint of ordinary life. John the Baptist lived out in the desert, St Paul and the apostles travelled round the world of their day preaching and founding the first Christian communities. Theirs were not ordinary lives. But Joseph’s and Mary’s were. They had to go to Bethlehem in obedience to the government and complete the census. St Joseph was told to name the child. He would have to arrange for him to be circumcised. He would be responsible as the years passed for initiating his son into the life of the synagogue and the Temple, for bringing him up as a faithful Jew. He would teach him his trade. There was the flight into Egypt, the refugee experience, finding new accommodation and work and food. Then the return to the Holy Land and the move to Nazareth. There was all the distress at the three-day loss of their child in the Temple. They were carrying and caring for a unique treasure, God’s beloved Son, the Word made flesh, but it all played out in ordinary life. No wonder we turn to St Joseph if we need a house or a spouse or work or money. And so, one last time, as with Mary, as with St Joseph, so for us. We are carried by God’s encompassing purpose, we respond, however falteringly, with faith, and then we disappear, almost, into the daily living of our daily life. Dear daily life! St Joseph assures us: it is not a let-down, not a distraction; it’s the theatre where God’s will plays out in our live and we learn to do good, simply, bravely, patiently, perseveringly, trustingly. Daily life is where the treasure is hidden, where our Christian life is verified and the Lord himself, Christ within, grows within us and among us.
We are sure Mary is our mother. We can be sure too of the fatherly friendship of St Joseph.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 19 March 2022