Words on the Word

St Joseph

2 Sam 7.4-16 Your throne will be established for ever.
Rom 4.13-22 The promise depends on faith.
Mt 1.16-24 Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded.

God entrusted our Saviour to the care of St Joseph. St Joseph was no doubt an outstanding man. Catholic tradition has expounded his outstandingness so thoroughly that he can seem a little unreal, almost like a caricature of virtue. What I wish to focus on tonight is rather a matter of principle. However excellent he was, Joseph was an ordinary fellow, an artisan in stable circumstances, but without special status, wealth, or social security. He owned little enough to carry his livelihood with him on a donkey’s back from Galilee to Egypt and back. To this righteous country carpenter, ready to up sticks, the almighty Creator of heaven and earth entrusted his only begotten Son and the Agent of the world’s redemption.

Today’s liturgy draws several lines between Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Jacob’s son, the first Biblical Joseph. This Joseph belonged to a higher social class — Jacob was a tribal chief — but lost all when his brothers coolly sold him into slavery. For years this Joseph lived uncertainly. When he landed in Pharao’s gaol, he must have assumed he would never be released. Yet precisely he became God’s providential instrument, the link that made it possible for God’s people to avoid perishing from starvation.

Why does God act in this way? Why does he not choose more secure, warrantable procedures? Based on his case history, the Lord would not stand a chance confronted with the terms of a modern insurance agency.

God is not bound by our ideas of what is, and what is not, reasonable. He is the God of the hundredfold. He is also a God who is at ease in hiddenness and fragility. That is something to recall today, when the Church in various parts of the word agonises on account of losing ground and thinks up drastic procedures to reclaim lost territory. There’s a risk that we end up, thus, following wrong tracks. Both the older and the younger Joseph had to lose everything. They had to leave a life that gave them security in order to step out into the unknown. There they were made ready for service within God’s plan. It often happens that God prepares us for action, not by giving us things, but by taking things away from us. That is how we learn what faith is, and hope; that is how we learn what it means in practice to live by grace.

Joseph’s emblem is the lily. The lily represents purity. Joseph was chaste in the sense St Benedict asks the abbot of a monastery to be chaste. He is to pour out his life for his sons, but not for a moment is he to belive that they belong to him. In the freedom of our Lord Jesus Christ was see, as it were, a mirror image of Joseph’s paternal liberty. The lily also represents extravagance. Solomon in all his glory could not match the lily of the field. Let us, by following Joseph’s example, be pure and generous; let us trustfully follow the Spirit’s guidance, even if it leads us to experiences of loss for the sake of fidelity, even if it takes us into uncharted landscapes. In this way God, through the Church, will be able to make use of us for his salvific purpose, whose mark is the cross.


Icon painted by Solrunn Nes