St Joseph “The forgotten man in the crib”
Pope Francis declared a “Year of St Joseph” from 8 December 2020 to 8 December 2021. My first thought, why would the Pope do that now? On reading his short, and accessible, Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde, I understood better his motivation. Pope Francis writes that during the Covid 19 pandemic, he noticed the doctors, nurses, storekeepers and supermarket workers, the cleaners, caregivers and transport workers, who often go unnoticed but sustain our life by their work and presence. This goes on in families and communities where people pray, make sacrifices and help others all in an often unrecognised way. This observation moved him to think about St Joseph and the way he expressed his fatherly love for Jesus.
Pope Francis sees Joseph as the great example of this hidden love and care: “Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble.”
During Covid lockdowns we noticed many people from our parishes and communities who carried out this, often, unrecognised work for others. St Joseph is the great patron of these people, who look for no special thanks but gain a joy from serving others when there is a need.
Within Christian spirituality, St Joseph has often seemed the forgotten man. He hovers in the background, in the shadows. It was a struggle to fit him into the usual biological definition of a father so he was often called a foster father. Pope Francis points out that “fathers are not born but made… when a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person.”
The importance of fatherhood is being reassessed in our society, it is not primarily biological but rather based on a responsibility to love and care for a child. St Joseph provides a great model for those men who wish to be good fathers.
I have a personal affinity with Joseph for three main reasons. I was given a statue of the Holy Family as a very young boy and was always amazed at how strong and courageous Joseph was when my Mother and Father explained the Christmas story. A favourite uncle of mine had a middle name of Joseph and named one of his four children Joseph. He died a fairly young man which makes it all the more poignant now. When my wife and I started dating, a beautiful small village church named Our Lady and St Joseph was exactly half way between our addresses and we would meet there for Sunday morning Mass. Since then Joseph seems to appear (not literally!) and is more and more relevant to me in my journey of faith as life goes on.
In his quiet fatherly way Joseph intercedes for us. He watches over the family of God’s people, much like he watched over Jesus as he learned to walk, as he worked at a trade and as he eventually left home to carry out his mission. Joseph shows us that holiness is found in a very normal and human way, carrying out the day to day responsibilities of family life and being a caring citizen in the community. He shows us something important about the dignity and importance of work; he reminds us of the significance of good fathering, and he teaches us to place our trust in God in the midst of problems and anxieties.
Following his catechesis on St Paul’s letter to the Galatians last month at the Wednesday General Audience, Pope Francis explained that “today as never before in this time marked by a global crisis St Joseph can offer support, consolation and guidance”.
Pope Francis went on to consider the places associated with St Joseph, especially Bethlehem and Nazareth, which “assume an important role in our understanding” of the saint. Bethlehem, he said, means “house of bread” or, in Arabic, “house of meat,” both expressions that are full of significances in light of the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Bethlehem also recalls the story of Ruth, the great grandmother of David the king, from whom Joseph traces his descent; as well as the prophecy of Micah, who foretold the coming of the Messiah from Bethlehem.
While Jerusalem was “the city loved by the Lord, the ‘holy city’,” it was Bethlehem and Nazareth, both outlying villages, “far from the clamour of the news and the powers of the time” that are most associated with Saint Joseph. “The choice of Bethlehem and Nazareth tells us that the periphery and marginality are preferred by God,” Pope Francis said. “Failure to take this fact seriously is equivalent to not taking seriously the Gospel and the work of God.”
Jesus, the Pope emphasized, goes out especially in search of those on the peripheries, not only sinners, but also “those who have done no evil but have suffered it: the sick, the hungry, the poor, the least.”
Now, as then, the Pope said, “there is a centre and a periphery” in society; and, as in the time of Jesus, “the Church knows that she is called to proclaim the good news from the periphery.” Here St Joseph can be an example, reminding each of us to accord special importance “to what others cast aside.” In this sense, the Pope said, St Joseph “is truly a master of the essential: he reminds us that what truly matters does not attract our attention, but requires patient discernment to be discovered and appreciated.”
Pope Francis asked us to pray for Joseph’s intercession, “that the whole Church might recover this insight,” adding, “Let us start again from Bethlehem, let us start again from Nazareth.” And to all those living on the geographical or existential peripheries, the Pope had this message: “May you find in Saint Joseph the witness and protector to whom you can look.”
St Joseph is certainly a very relevant and helpful saint for the times we live in.
So this Christmas, when taking some time to pray in front of the church crib, look at Joseph as he looks upon the Saviour of world. Speak to him, he is there for you!