Remembering St. Joseph

Detail of St. Joseph from The Merode Altarpiece, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 7:10-16Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you’ve ever been in The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, (known also as Saint Mary’s, Times Square, and simply “Smokey Mary’s, because of its abundance use of incense), you might have walked by a beautiful little chapel.  It’s an odd space because of its dimensions—slightly wider than it is long, but striking because over the alter, there’s a pretty Della Robia-like roundel showing two people with their hands held together, being blessed by a priest.  It portrays the marriage of Mary and Joseph and the little chapel is nicknamed the Nuptial Chapel—a perfect place for small weddings. But the Nuptial Chapel’s real name is the St. Joseph’s Chapel.  It used to have a sculpture of Joseph as the patron saint of carpenters, and it supposedly depicted Joseph in worker’s clothes, holding a square and a compass.  I say “used to,” because the statue went missing during a renovation.  It was taken, or thrown out, or sold.

When I think about Joseph, it seems that the missing statue story sums up much about the history of poor Joseph.  He has largely gone missing from church history, from tradition, and even from the Christmas story.  Since there’s no story of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of John, Joseph certainly doesn’t appear there.  Nor does he appear in Mark.  He shows up a little in Luke. But in Matthew, we do learn a little more.

Joseph appears at the beginning of Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus and in the reading we heard just a minute ago.  He appears again when he’s told to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt for safety. And then, in Chapter 13, we learn that Joseph is a carpenter.  That’s really all we get. That wasn’t enough for the early Church, so they wondered together about Jesus’s family and came up with explanations of their own.  To preserve the idea of Mary’s virginity, there was a tendency to imagine Joseph was much older, perhaps with children from a previous marriage, and thus Joseph was really “foster-father” to Jesus.  In art, comedy, and legend, Joseph is sometimes portrayed as a little slow, a bit hollow, removed from the action, and certainly not an essential player.

And yet, beginning with the genealogy of Jesus, the very beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has told us something about Joseph. The Gospel of Matthew makes it very clear that Joseph is an important part of what is about to happen. Matthew traces the lineage of Joseph back through King David and then back through to Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel. The point is given away really with the very first words of the Gospel. It begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In other words, Matthew says, let there be no mistake:  Jesus is a king who comes from kingly stock.

We might wonder why Matthew would spend so much energy tracing Jesus’s genealogy back through Joseph, if Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus? The early church asked this question and supposed a couple of different answers. Some supposed that since Mary and Joseph both registered for the census in Bethlehem, perhaps they were from related families. Others, including Augustine, simply pointed out that in the time of Mary and Joseph, paternity had far more to do with affiliation than biology. According to Jewish law, if a man claimed a child, that claim was proof enough. The claim was made solid when the child was given a name. This is why so much emphasis is placed on Zechariah’s naming of John the Baptist. It’s why Joseph’s word counts. And so, when Joseph said “He will be called Jesus,” those words work as an adoption. They establish Joseph’s legal guardianship for the child Jesus, and place Jesus in the royal line from King David through Joseph.

And this Joseph is meant to remind us of another Joseph, the one in the Book of Genesis.  Saint Bernard draws connections between the Joseph who was the patriarch in ancient Israel and the Joseph we meet in today’s Gospel. Among other similarities, Bernard reminds us,

The first Joseph had the gift of interpreting the hidden secrets of dreams.
The second not only knew heavenly mysteries but even participated in them.
The first Joseph stored up grain for himself and for all the people;
the second was given charge of the bread come down from heaven for his sake and for the sake of the world. To this second Joseph it was given not only to see and to hear what many kings and prophets had longed to see, but even to carry the little king of kings, to take him by the hand, to hug and kiss him, to feed him and to keep him safe.” (Homily II)

In addition to telling us that Joseph comes from kingly stock, St. Matthew also gives us a glimpse of who Joseph is—of how he reacts and what he’s made of. We’re told that Mary and Joseph are betrothed. This was the first of a two-step marriage agreement. The betrothal was actually much more official than what we might think of as an engagement. Once betrothed, promises had been made, promises that Joseph probably thought Mary had broken. No wonder, then, he thinks about divorcing her quietly.

But then there’s the dream. “Do not fear,” the angel says.

Do not fear, as God said to Moses. Do not fear, as the angel said to Gideon. Do not fear, as Boaz said to Ruth. Do not fear as David said. Do not fear as Isaiah said. Do not fear as the angels said to Elizabeth. Do not fear as the angel said to Mary.

The angel tells Joseph that the child is to be born of the Spirit of God—the very breath of God that hovered over creation at the beginning, that whispered wisdom into the lives of the faithful, that now has overshadowed and filled and claimed Mary. And his name will be Jesus. Jesus, a variation of Joshua. Just as Moses was chosen by God bring God’s people out of slavery, (in the New Testament) John the Baptist is chosen by God to bring people out of the slavery of sin.  As Moses prepared and Joshua finished; John the Baptist prepares and Jesus (the new Joshua) finishes.  Somehow the importance of this history and tradition resonates with Joseph in his dream, so when he wakes up, he does what the angel had commanded.

It’s not only the chapel at St. Mary’s that missing something without St. Joseph, we too, miss out when we overlook Joseph.  We can learn from him in a number of ways.

First of all, Joseph was able to follow what the faith tradition taught and he looked for God’s will in his life.  Joseph knew himself as part of the worshipping community. He was religious. He kept the laws. Even when he learned that Mary had become pregnant, he sought to do the morally right thing (which in his eyes would have been to separate from her) though he planned to do this discreetly, not embarrassing or endangering Mary.

We can reclaim Joseph when we also try our best to do the right thing.  We’ll be like Joseph whenever we’re able to put our own plans on pause for a minute, at least long enough to listen for God—whether God speaks.

Joseph not only looks and listens for God’s direction, but he is also open God’s arrival out of left field.  He is open to religious experience. He is open to mystical experience.  His vision comes in a dream, but it might have come just as surely while he was on the job, while he was walking down the road, or while he was on his way to visit his betrothed. Sometimes we talk of those who have had visions of God or have heard a special word from an angel as being specially privileged, unusual and rare. But really, if we were able to speak honestly with one another, we’d find an enormous number of people have had and continue to have religious experiences they cannot understand and cannot sometimes even describe.

A part of our having a religious experience involves our openness. Do we allow God space to squeeze into our lives? Do we allow God the opportunity to revise our plans? I wonder if Saint Joseph’s work as a carpenter didn’t teach him the importance of continuing to take measurements, continuing to calculate the angles, check the materials, and make adjustments along the way as necessary.

In following the laws of Judaism carefully and fully, Joseph initially planned to divorce Mary. But then, being open to God’s intervention, having a religious experience that changed his course, Joseph then was able to set out in the new direction with confidence and faith that seems not to have wavered.

Saint Joseph is patron saint of carpenters and workers in general. He reminds us that the history of faith is not so much about the saints who accomplished miracles or who led extraordinarily holy lives apart from the world. Rather, the church is made up of people like Joseph, who work hard, allow their work to inform their faith and their faith to inform their work; who listen for God’s word and allow it to break into their lives, and who, in the totality of their lives, are able to point to the one who’s name is Jesus.

A hymn for Saint Joseph’s Day from the 17th century, in our hymnal, puts it well:

Christ in whose presence hosts of hell must tremble,
Ruler of all things, Lord of earth and heaven,
Monarch of monarchs, to his earthly father freely was subject.
To God eternal be all praise and glory,
Who to Saint Joseph gave supernal honor,
Grant that we also may like him be faithful in our obedience. [The Hymnal 1982, “By the creator,” 261]

As we move more deeply into the mystery and wonder of Christmas, we continue to have occasion to pay honor and respect to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. That is good and appropriate. But may we also–more and more of us—reclaim and remember Saint Joseph, so that with him and all the saints, we might point others to Jesus, Emmanuel, who is God with us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


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