Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Saint Joseph - Patron of the Institute

The church celebrates the Feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Among Lasallians, he is held in special esteem because of his position at Patron and Protector of the Institute. De La Salle writes about him: "The Gospel makes us admire in Saint Joseph the care he had for the holy Child Jesus…You must have a similar great attention and affection for preserving or procuring the innocence of the children entrusted to your guidance…For you have been made responsible for these children just as Saint Joseph was made responsible by God for the Savior of the world." The very first seal of the Institute bore witness to this statement, bearing an image of Saint Joseph holding hands with a young Jesus.

For many Christians, St. Joseph remains a minor character in the lineup of saints, largely because we know so little about him. It’s as if he is a fictional or mythical character, communicating a strong but relatively hazy impression. “Oh yes, Odysseus. Wasn’t he the guy who fought that one-eyed monster?” “Oh yes, St. Joseph. Wasn’t he the father – well, sort of – of Jesus?”

Schools and institutions bear his name, but I doubt that most people ever really think about him and his role in the life of Jesus. Indeed there are precious few references to St. Joseph in the bible. But those that we have are quite impressive.

Here is someone who cares for Mary enough to marry her, despite the fact that she was “with child.” In his place, most of us would have doubted Mary’s story. Yet Joseph knew Mary, respected her, loved her, and trusted that she spoke the truth. That takes real, grounded faith.

Here is someone who pays attention to all of the ways that God communicates to us, including through dreams. Because of his trust in God, he marries Mary and later takes his family into Egypt in order to safeguard the child and mother, eventually returning to Nazareth and carrying on as if nothing special had happened. That takes real, grounded faith, humility and hope.

Here is someone who raises Jesus as any father at that time might, taking him to synagogue, teaching him about life and relationships and carpentry, having both casual and formal conversations on a host of topics, and generally shaping the boy’s personality and moral character. That takes real, grounded faith, humility, hope and the special charity of parents.

We associate Saint Joseph with goodness, watchful care, faithful service to God, a loving presence, and quietly working in the background of the greater drama about to unfold. When I think of him, I think of someone who is significantly older than Mary (not uncommon in those days) and cares for her out of a growing love and respect. For some years, he walked a lot beside a donkey (to Bethlehem and then to Egypt and back to Nazareth) and made all of the practical arrangements of life (places to stay, means of income, etc.). During the formative years of Jesus, he was the model of what “father” came to mean for him. Joseph played a significant role in providing the foundational experiences that developed how Jesus came to understand who God was and how God meant for all of us to know and love him. “Father” became “Abba”.

Many years ago I asked a holy priest how Jesus came to know that he was God’s Son. The priest thought about it for a minute and then said: “I suppose that he came to know that he was God in the same way that you and I come to know that we are a person.” In other words, it is a growing awareness, fed by reflection, experience, and prayer, which brings someone to a deeper understanding of who they are, or who they are meant to be. This was the experience of Mary, of Joseph, of Jesus, and of each one of us.

This deepening process of awareness doesn’t stop but is fed daily by what we do, say, think, and pray; something worth keeping in mind as we enter Holy Week. If this was true of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, it can certainly be true of us. (Emphasis on can be.)