Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Solemnity of St. Joseph

According to the liturgical calendar, today, March 19, is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For obvious reasons he is one of the most significant Saints of the Church, and certainly one of the most popular, judging from the number of statues of St. Joesph that I see in churches. Not to mention the rather odd custom of burying a mini statue of St. Joseph in the yard to facilitate the sale of your house. According to the online Patron Saints Index, among other things he is the patron saint of families, of workers (including carpenters, cabinetmakers, craftsmen, etc.), and of a happy death. Why? Because according to Church tradition, he died of natural causes with both Jesus and Mary by his side. According to the CNA website, his feast "has been celebrated throughout the church since the tenth century and has been honored as the Patron of the Universal Church since 1870."

At my parish, Holy Spirit Church-Annandale, we will mark the occasion with a high mass at 7:30 pm, when we will also dedicate our parish's new organ. As I wrote in an earlier blog entry ("The Beauty of Holiness"), our parish is in the midst of our own "reform of the reform," and we have gradually been re-introducing chant (in both Latin and English) and other neglected forms of sacred music. Tonight will sing all of the ordinary parts of the mass in Latin, including the Credo for the first time. Please join us if you are in the area. (See map.)

I consider St. Joseph the very embodiment of a "stand-up guy," the sort who always put the good of others first, especially his family. When faced with the news that his prospective wife is expecting a child, his response reveals a man focused on her best interests: “…Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.” (Matt. 1:19) In other words, although the marriage was null and void according to the law, Joseph wanted to protect Mary from public scandal. Then when an angel explains to the real story to him in a dream, he doesn’t hesitate to follow the angel’s command and take Mary as his wife. He is the one to whom God reveals the name by which the child will be known – Jesus.

This is the first but not the last time that Joseph’s obedience to God’s direction proves crucial. It is Joseph whom God warns in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt to escape Herod’s search-and-destroy mission. Once again, he obeys, and his obedience saves Jesus’ life.

His role in the story of Jesus' life is not quite front-and-center, but his role is crucial. Imagine for a moment what that story would have been like without Joseph. Had he not been willing to follow God's instructions in the first instance, Mary might have been exposed to public shame and even the penalty of stoning under the law. Had he not obeyed God and taken his family to Egypt, Jesus might have ended up as one of Herod's victims. Certainly God would have found a way to work out his plan of salvation, but the point is that Joseph's obedience, like Mary's, was crucial to the success of this particular plan.

The Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square in Rome in 2007 was set in Joseph's carpentry shop in Nazareth, rather than the traditional stable in Bethlehem. It incited some controversy, but one reason that the Holy Father did it this way was to remind us of the critical role of Jesus' earthly father and, by extension, of all earthly fathers, in protecting and guiding their families.
Here is a prayer to St. Joseph with origins, as I understand it, in the first century. It is included in the program for tonight's mass at my parish:
O St. Joseph whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the Throne of God, I place in you all my interests and desires. O St. Joseph do assist me by your powerful intercession and obtain for me from your Divine Son, all spiritual blessings through Jesus Christ, Our Lord; so that having engaged here below your heavenly power I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most Loving of Fathers. O St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press him in my name and kiss His fine head for me, and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls, pray for us. Amen.

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