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AA yyeeaarr ooff rreenneewwaall ffoorr tthhee CChhuurrcchh
We look back on the highs and lows of 2011
AAllssoo iinnssiiddee:: Fr Aidan Nichols on how the Incarnation changed the world
DECCEMBER 23 2011 Christmas and New Year supplemment
People visit the Nativity scene in St Peter’s Square after Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican last year. ‘The Christ Child and Mary normally seize our attention. But we might also stop to focus for a moment on the figure of Joseph’ CNS
In the plan of God the safety of Mary and the Christ Child depended on St Joseph, says Gerald O’Collins SJ St Joseph: the silent preacher of love
Ifirst learned about St Joseph from some nuns and my father’s youngest brother. Followers of St Mary of the Cross (or, as she is better known, Mother Mary MacKillop), the Sisters of St Joseph taught me in primary school. They had his statue in their convent and his caring concern for others in their hearts.
Uncle Joe, a medical doctor, enjoyed a busy practice but always found time for me. He taught me how to play golf, lent me his dinner jacket for the ball that crowned the social season at the high school I attended and cheerfully encouraged whatever projects engaged my attention. His constant kindness led me to think more about the great saint whose name he bore.
The gospels tell us little about St Joseph. But how precious that “little” truly is. We first meet him when facing a most painful situation. He did not yet know how Mary had come to be pregnant. From the point of view of society at the time, she had disgraced her own family, insulted her future husband’s family and had committed an offence that could be punished by stoning her to death. But Joseph was a “just man” and wanted to do his best in a situation that was nothing short of a nightmare. He planned to save the woman he loved by secretly divorcing her (Mt 1:18–19).
In Matthew’s Gospel “just” and “justice” will continue to be a significant theme – not least in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus declares “blessed” those “who hunger and thirst after justice” (Mt 5:6). Joseph has already proved himself a role model for those who want to live a “just” life.
God blesses Joseph by sending an “angel of the Lord” to let him know what has happened. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary has become pregnant and will have a child. Joseph is to give the name of “Jesus” to her son, who will do nothing less than “save his people from their sins” and prove to be “Emmanuel” or “God with us”.
After the Christ Child is born and the Magi have paid their homage, the “angel of the Lord” returns to warn Joseph about the murderous plans of Herod the Great. Joseph reacts at once and under cover of night takes the Infant Jesus and Mary away to safety in Egypt. When Herod dies, the angel of the Lord again appears to Joseph
The gospels tell us very little about St Joseph. But how precious that ‘little’ truly is and tells him to return to Israel. Once back in the Holy Land, Joseph follows further instructions from God and heads for Galilee to settle with Jesus and Mary in Nazareth.
The First Letter of John sums up love as being not a matter of word or speech but of truth and action (1 Jn 3:18). This could be a summary description of Joseph. Right through the two opening chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel, he never makes a speech. In fact, he never says a word. It is in action that he shows his love for the Christ Child and for Mary.
Once we move to later chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph seems to drop out of sight. It seems sad to hear little more about him. After Jesus has started his ministry, the people of his home town, Nazareth, react with disbelief. Jesus has grown up among them, and now they find him preaching and working miracles. Yet as far as they are concerned, he is simply “the son of the carpenter” (Mt 13:55). What Matthew says about the profession of Joseph has inspired scenes that painters like Sir John Millais have made familiar. Jesus works away in a carpentry shop and learns the trade from Joseph. Some scholars have been quick to point out that the Greek word tektōn, often translated as “carpenter”, could easily have carried the meaning of “builder”. But it could be more important to move beyond matters of vocabulary and ask the wider question: what did Jesus learn from Joseph?
Growing up in the uniquely holy home in Nazareth, Jesus found in Joseph a wonderful role model. Day by passing day Joseph showed Jesus what it was to be a real man, a devoted husband and a loving father.
Later Jesus would speak about God as “Abba”, “Daddy” or “Father dear”. He would tell one of his greatest stories about the loving father of two sons, the younger one who cleared off to waste his money in high living and the other a self-righteous prig who stayed at home. To illustrate how God genuinely cares for us in all our needs, Jesus pointed out that no good father would dream of playing nasty tricks on his children. A round loaf could resemble a stone and dried fish might look like snakeskin. But what loving father would ever dream of passing his children a stone when they asked for bread or snakeskin when they asked for fish (Mt 7:9-10)? When Jesus spoke about the way in which good human fathers behave and preached about his heavenly Father, here and there we glimpse what he experienced over the years in Nazareth. He enjoyed a unique mother in the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he also enjoyed a unique father in that “just” man, Joseph. It was much more than the techniques of building and carpentry that Jesus learned from Joseph.
He even learned from Joseph something of what God is like.
At this time of the year we see Christmas cribs in churches, homes and other places. The Christ Child and Mary his mother normally seize our attention. But we might also stop to focus for a moment on the figure of Joseph.
In the plan of God, the safety of Mary and her Child depended upon Joseph. Without him, Mary would at best have become a permanent outcast in her society. Given the rules of Jewish society of those times, Joseph’s acceptance of his divine mission was nothing less than breathtaking. He worked with Mary to safeguard the Son of God come among us as a tiny baby.
Along with Jesus and Mary, Joseph also exemplified all that was and is best in human beings. His courageous and self-forgetting love was nothing less than heroic.
I remain lastingly grateful to the Sisters of St Joseph and my Uncle Joe for setting me long ago on the road to know and value more and more a very great saint and a uniquely remarkable human being. Now adjunct professor of Australian Catholic University, Fr Gerald O’Collins has published 60 books, the latest being Rethinking Fundamental Theology (Oxford University Press)