Monday, March 19, 2007

Universal Patron

Today’s feast of St Joseph is not on the Byzantine liturgical calendar, but it has always been our custom to celebrate it here at the monastery anyway. Our founder, Archimandrite Boniface, initiated it, and far be it from me, who bear the name Joseph, to discontinue this venerable tradition! I think it is a grave defect of the Byzantine calendar that it virtually ignores St Joseph, having only a single relatively minor commemoration on the Sunday after Christmas, a day on which several other saints are celebrated as well. That seems to me to be quite unfitting for the man who was not only deemed worthy of angelic visitations, but who was the chaste spouse of the all-holy Mother of God and the foster father of the divine Savior of the world! Many good things can commonly be said about the saints, but those two incredible things can be said only about St Joseph! Who else, besides Mary, lived in such daily intimacy with the incarnate God? This, along with the fact that in the 19th century St Joseph was formally proclaimed by the Pope as the “Patron of the Universal Church,” of which we are a part, makes it truly fitting and right that we offer an extra day in honor of St Joseph as a special friend and patron. And, rather than pull a date out of thin air (we don’t know the day of his death), we chose the day that many other Catholics are celebrating his feast. Since it is Lent, however, we celebrate it in a somewhat muted fashion but, being a man of humility and silence, St Joseph won’t mind if we don’t get too boisterous on this day.

When I was preparing to enter the novitiate—many, many, many years ago!—I wanted to receive Joseph as a monastic name, partly because of my developing devotion to him, but mainly because I was aware that he was everything I was not, and, being such a powerful intercessor in Heaven, he could help me grow in all the virtues in which he himself excelled. I think I’ve proven to be something of a tough nut to crack, but St Joseph hasn’t given up on me yet!

It’s a little difficult to write about St Joseph during Lent, since his whole story in the Gospels is so, well, Christmasey. It’s all about the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, and the birth of the God-man, Jesus Christ. But what we learn about St Joseph in the Gospel accounts, especially that of St Matthew, are some lessons in virtue, which the time of Lent is perfect for developing.

The first comes from St Joseph’s righteousness under the law. When we first meet St Joseph, the grace of Christ is still a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled, so the only known word of God was found in the law and the prophets. The Gospel describes Joseph as a righteous man, faithful to the law which said he could not marry his betrothed if she became pregnant by another man, which at that moment he could only assume was the case. Yet even before the time of grace, he showed himself greater than the law, for he did not insist on carrying out the punishment the law required. Out of love for Mary, even though he must have been indescribably wounded by what he thought was a betrayal of their love and fidelity, he decided simply to quietly end the relationship, so she would not come under the condemnation of the law. Hurt though he was, he wouldn’t dream of exacting vengeance upon his beloved.

Next is St Joseph’s faith in God. That is what prepared him to be ready for what God was to do next. He could have argued his case or asked God why He allowed it to happen, but when he heard the word of the Lord from the angel, he simply obeyed. In this he is like the patriarch Abraham, about whom the Letter to the Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called…” (11:8). By faith Joseph obeyed when he was told to receive Mary as his wife, even though she was already pregnant with a child not his. What he may have understood by the angel’s words, “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,” we can only guess, but it was enough to motivate his faith and obedience. He would be required to exercise this faith and obedience again, when the angel woke him up to send him to Egypt, and then again to return to Israel. Each time, St Joseph immediately did what he was told, for it was the will of God and, remember, he was a righteous man, which means he was in a right relationship with God.

St Joseph’s humility is another virtue, one which we can all stand to grow in. It is first manifested in his unquestioning obedience, but we can speculate a bit on how his life must have been. Given his general reserve, and his inclination to act in a quiet and gentle way with those whom he loved, we can be sure that Joseph conducted himself with reverence and humble availability for the needs of his wife and foster Son. We have no indication that Joseph played the proud father, announcing to all that his boy was the Messiah, and that those who cast aspersions on his chaste bride were all wet, because this boy came straight from God! In fact, we probably can’t even say, in the ordinary sense, that St Joseph was proud of Jesus, because this type of pride comes from the fact that one’s son is one’s own flesh and blood, and that it is somehow because of the father that the son has turned out so well. If St Joseph couldn’t be proud of Jesus in that sense, he certainly stood in awe of Him, knowing that his true Father in Heaven was well pleased with the One He had entrusted to St Joseph’s care.

St Joseph’s occupation was a humble one as well. Today’s carpenters and cabinet-makers are often rather well to do, and their skills command a high price. But in those days, a carpenter did not enjoy wealth or prestige from his work, for it was for the most part considered common and simple. And this was the trade he would hand on to his humble Son. Perhaps Joseph said to the child Jesus, concerning this skill, something that Jesus would later say to us concerning our whole life: “Learn from me.”

Finally, we can perhaps make some valid assumptions about St Joseph’s life of prayer and contemplation. How could he not have been a man of deep prayer, living as he did daily with the Son of God and his holy Mother? He must have learned a lot from them about God and his ways. He must have breathed the very air of holiness in their presence. For Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and St Joseph, the humble carpenter, was living under the same roof as Him who created worlds and galaxies.

So let us strive to learn from St Joseph, not carpenter’s skills, but this holy carpenter’s virtues: deep prayer and humility, faith and obedience, and the righteousness that manifests itself in love of God and neighbor, and in readiness to do the Lord’s will at all times.

As we celebrate the Patron (which means father) of the Universal Church—recall that Jesus said: he who humbles himself will be exalted; and He exalted his foster father immensely, another proof of St Joseph’s humility—let us realize that like Jesus, we have only one true Father in Heaven, who is God of all. But let us also remember that, like Jesus, we also have a foster father in Heaven, St Joseph: our friend and father and intercessor and model for a life of righteousness in communion with Jesus and Mary.