Devotion to St Joseph is a relatively recent development in the Church and it seems to be gaining ground. Pope Francis included the spikenard, the emblem of St Joseph, on his coat of arms and stipulated in one of his first pontifical acts that Joseph’s name follow that of Mary’s in all the eucharistic prayers, in the process making all those shiny new English missals out of date.
We know little about Joseph from the Gospels. His story is full of gaps. Over the years those pregnant silences have been filled by commentators, poets and mystics with new traditions and stories, the sort of thing the Jewish people call “midrash”.
Ignatius invites us to make up our own midrash by conjuring up the Christmas scene in our own imagination at the beginning of a whole week of his Spiritual Exercises devoted to contemplation of Jesus. His idea is that contemplation of Him stirs up in us new and surprising desires. We discover that we want to be close to Jesus. We even want to become like Him, to share His mission – and his suffering. As we stand before the manger, we are drawn to His vulnerability as he takes his first breath in a hostile world, a tiny, undefended child. His littleness evokes in us a natural longing to be His protector. And that’s precisely who Joseph is: God’s Providence for His fragile Son.
The implication is far-reaching: the long journey of following Christ begins in our yearning to safeguard the defenceless. There’s a message our Church needs to take to heart, to learn again how to build priestly service on the solid foundation of respect for the dignity and integrity of every person, no matter how little they are.
Joseph’s formidable ability to protect the weak extends to us too. St Theresa of Avila, never one to praise a man unnecessarily, testifies to this. She says:
I took for my advocate and lord the glorious Saint Joseph and commended myself earnestly to him; and I found that this my father and lord delivered me both from […] troubles concerning my honour and the loss of my soul, and that he gave me greater blessings than I could ask of him.
Isn’t that precisely the power of paternal affection? Joseph’s gift is to be a strong but self-effacing father. He tells us to be scared neither of power nor of vulnerability, that the disciple embraces both. In this, he is like his ancestor David, who was a tough warrior yet unafraid to abandon himself as he danced before the tabernacle.
We are getting into delicate territory, aren’t we? Gender roles and identity. There is no avoiding it with Joseph. There is great anxiety abroad today about what it takes to be a real man. Tarzan with a semi-automatic? Or an über-sensitive hipster? Joseph doesn’t fit the options commonly on offer today. He comes from a culture of patriarchal honour quite different to ours – you sense that in the Gospel reading. But he is countercultural: he is not pre-occupied by his honour. Instead of baying for Mary’s blood, he stands by her, ready to bring up a child not his own, even if it means enduring exile and a lifetime of gossip. His is an altered masculinity, and a powerfully redemptive one.
WH Auden sees a rich theological mystery at work. Jesus saves humankind from original sin, but it is Joseph who atones for Adam saying of Eve, “she made me do it!”, instead of taking responsibility for his own actions. At the Fall, the perfect solidarity of man and woman is fractured when Adam blames the woman. As Pope Francis says, “Sin generates distrust and division between man and woman. Their relationship will be undermined by a thousand forms of abuse and subjugation, misleading seduction and humiliating ignorance.” Auden thinks that it falls to Joseph to put that right. And he does it by trusting the word of a woman, even when it must have seemed madness. If Joseph’s fiat puts things right again, we can too by following his example.
The poet sees a further connection between Mary’s unlikely story and the unbelievable claims of the women about Christ’s resurrection at the end of the Gospel. Even just being a Christian requires us to accept a woman’s incredible word, even in the face of vast implausibility, just as Joseph did. Joseph’s faith turns out to be foundational for the existence of the Church.
That fits experience. Women have always been a source of encouragement and inspiration for us Jesuits, notably in the life of Ignatius. In so many ways, they summon up from us what Fr General calls the “audacity of the impossible”, a capacity to trust God more than seems reasonable. How fortunate are we Jesuits in Britain to have so many extraordinary women as partners in our mission? It’s good to know that when we work well together, and sometimes we do, when we share in Joseph’s charism, we aren’t just sharing the load. We are allowing God to reconcile Adam and Eve.
But what of healing our relationship with God? Joseph has something to teach us about that too, but it involves going deep into the shadows of the psyche. Think for a moment about what it means for Joseph to bring up God’s son. Not only foregoing the dream of his own family but almost having God as a rival. “Not my son but His…” This bitter, deceptive thought crops up in an old English song, the Cherry Tree Carol, inspired by a passage from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The expectant virgin is pictured beneath a cherry tree and asks Joseph a favour:
O then bespoke Mary, so meek and so mild:
“Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, for I am with child.”
O then bespoke Joseph, with words most unkind:
“Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child.”
Resentment of God is the oldest trap for us human beings, and we Christians are prone to virulent forms of it: resentment when we aren’t winning, when God forgives sinners, when we are persecuted…
We experience resentment when we live our lives to please others. What makes us free of it is living out our personal vocation, being centred in who I am for God. It’s about knowing God’s name for me, that name which releases deep reserves of energy and passion, all that motivates me and gets me up in the morning. That is how Joseph lives and that’s what makes him free to surrender everything to God’s task. That’s why the Cherry Tree carol doesn’t quite ring true. Joseph isn’t resentful, that’s the point.
And what is the meaning of the name ‘Joseph’? ‘God will bring increase’, God adds or makes greater. For the sons of Ignatius, this can only be tied to the magis. Joseph is the one who is responsible for God’s nurture and growth. The God Who is always greater. Serving Him is Joseph’s personal vocation; throwing himself fully into that task stops him brooding over all the losses and the sacrifices. It keeps him grateful and glad.
The American poet, Madeleine L’Engle, in one last piece of midrash, reminds us what that must have meant to the Blessed Virgin Mary who, after all, is best placed to sum up Joseph’s achievement.
It was from Joseph first I learned
Of love. Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
Me from his house; but unafraid,
He put me not away from him
(O God-sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.
Fr Damian Howard SJ
Source: Jesuits in Britain