“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.”
Isn’t it good, isn’t it poignant, that our last public Mass for whatever length of time it proves to be coincides with the feast of St Joseph? And should have that call “not to be afraid” at its heart?
Joseph, son of David, was given by God, by the Father, to Mary and Jesus. He was given to be a sacrament, an efficacious sign, of the Father’s own care for the Virgin Mother, and her son, the Word made flesh. Catholic instinct then takes the further step: as Mary and Jesus were entrusted to Joseph, so is the Church throughout her history. “Just as St Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model” (St John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos 1).
Devotion to Joseph is ancient. It must have begun in the hearts of Mary and Joseph, when she as wife and he as child, recognised what a gift of God was to them. St Matthew’s Gospel clearly cherished him. The stream has flowed on, surfacing in 4th c. Egyptian Christians and the Desert Fathers, emerging again in the West among the Franciscans and the Carmelites, in saints like Bernardine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales. In 1870, Pope St Pius IX declared him Patron of the Universal Church. In 1962, St John XXIII added his name to the Roman Canon and in 2013 Pope Francis had his name included in the other main Eucharistic Prayers. And the same Pope chose this feast – 7 years ago today – to begin his ministry as the Successor of St Peter.
Thinking of this living tradition, embodied in prayers and dedications and devotion, it’s as if St Joseph has been drawing every closer over time. It’s as if the Lord wants us to feel his – the Lord’s – protection through this good, just, honourable Jewish man, descendant of David, the worker, the carpenter, the provider, the husband and father, the man of faith and obedience, who has left us no words of his own, but who “did” what the angel of the Lord told him to do.
This is Joseph. As the mystery of the Incarnation unfolded, as his beloved became a mother, as her child grew in wisdom and grace, there he is – entrusted with them. There he is, now at home in God, entrusted with the Church which is Mary and its life which is Christ. And here he is too, surely, in this unexpected, difficult moment, entrusted afresh with us, with Mary the Church, and with the life of Jesus in us, with everyone who is, as it were, Jesus in waiting.
It’s a great human and divine thing St Joseph brings with him: the protection, the watchful care of God. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High and abides in the shade of the Almighty says to the Lord: ‘My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust.” This divine sheltering and nurturing never abandons either nature or human history. And it calls, again and again, for replication in us. In Genesis ch.1 we are told we are created in the image and likeness of God. In Genesis ch. 2, the man is placed in a garden to till it and keep it. Here’s our echo, our imitation of the divine: to till, develop, cultivate the land, the garden, the tree that each of us and human life is – by culture, by nurture if you like, and then to keep it, watch over it, care for it, protect it from harm. Adam was called to take care of the garden; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob took care of their families and servants, their herds and flocks; David was taken from care of the sheep to be the shepherd of the people of Israel, the priests and levites had care of the Temple and its sacred vessels and the sacrifices that happened there, just as the priests of the New Testament now have care of the holy Eucharist and the holy oils and of the souls entrusted to them. So much of life is or can or should be this kind of taking care, this imitation of God, who neither slumbers nor sleeps, but watches over his people and his whole creation night and day.
This is our vocation, our Joseph-ite vocation, as it were. Pope Francis said this of it seven years ago today: “The vocation of being a “protector” … means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!” Haven’t there been many Josephs in our own lives: fathers, grandfathers, elder brothers, teachers, mentors, tutors, protectors? And not simply men!
So it is a beautiful coincidence that, as we sadly abstain – a kind of Lent – from public liturgies, St Joseph is there. We do this to protect each other, in fact, from illness. This is a good thing to do. It is more than compliance with civil authority; it is a keeping of the 5th commandment. We might think for the Holy Family here. To protect their lives from the human virus of Herod, Joseph took Mary and Jesus away from the Holy Land, away from its Temple and its glorious Liturgy. It must have been a sad exile for them in that respect. But they had two things. They had, first, the great Jewish traditions of family prayer, grace at table, blessing of food, the Psalms, the Hebrew Bible. Let’s seize this unexpected moment to enhance our personal prayer life, to give ourselves a daily discipline: to read the readings of the day, for example, to commit ourselves afresh to the Rosary. On Sundays, let’s try to access Mass on TV or the internet. It would be so good for every home to become a domestic church. Secondly, the Holy Family had each other. Already surely a united family, but after this experience still more so! This is a time for caring for each other in new ways: by prayer, by messages, by phone calls. A Councillor told me the other day how generously a call for volunteers had been answered. The phrase is used: the New Normal. Would it not be wonderful if these things became that? In our parishes too.
Yes, like Adam, we are on this earth to till and to keep the garden. In Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth, Joseph, son of David, fulfilled this vocation supremely. He cared for Mary and her divine Child. May he care for us! And may we, with him, protect the life of Mary and of Jesus in ourselves and in each other. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 19 March 2020)