The solemnity of St Joseph trumps Lent. No purple today; it is not Tuesday of the fourth week of Lent. (In our diocese we observed the solemnity of St Cuthbert, our patron, yesterday.) it is the feast day of St Joseph. His feast day is important enough that it has been translated, as it fell on Lætare Sunday this year.
And it should be given such special attention. ‘When Joseph woke up [from the dream in which the angel of the Lord appeared to him to say that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit] he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do’–that is, to marry her anyway (Matthew 1.20-21, 24).
Joseph copies God–not that Mary had been unfaithful like Israel with the Golden Calf, or like Hosea’s wife, but in appearance. For how many would have believed Joseph at the time? Whom would he tell, anyway? We are never told that he reported the dream to anyone, though it is a safe bet that he told Mary. Perhaps Mary repeated it to Elizabeth. After all, Elizabeth knew that Mary’s baby was no ordinary child.
To the rest, the world outside, how must it have looked? Either Joseph had known his betrothed before their marriage, or someone else had. I don’t imagine that anyone’s first guess would have been conception by the Holy Spirit. Only after the birth of Jesus did the angels spread the news that Isaiah’s prophecy–which the angel had called to Joseph’s mind–had been fulfilled. Only then did the wise ones rejoice to see the promised child.
But Joseph believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Rightly does Bernardino of Siena (Sermon 2, on St Joseph: Opera 7, 16. 27-30) suggest we append St Joseph to the litany of the faithful in Hebrews 11. By faith Joseph took Mary to be his wife, trusting the words of the angel of the Lord that Mary’s child would save his people from their sins.
So it is not surprising that Joseph’s foster-child, after being found in the temple by his anxious parents, ‘went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority’ (Luke 2.51). Like (foster-)father, like son. Elsewhere in Hebrews, we read that Jesus learned obedience: Jesus, the Incarnate Word of Almighty God, who, as God, owed obedience to no one. Yet he learned obedience from two people whose obedience is celebrated in the Church this week: Joseph and Mary. Today we read that Joseph ‘did what the angel of the Lord told him to do’; on Saturday we celebrate the moment Joesph’s betrothed said to the angel: ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1.38).
Mary and Joseph trusted what God’s messengers said to them, and they are our spiritual parents as we have been incorporated into Christ. So we should, as members of the Son they nurtured, honour them as the commandment teaches: ‘Honour thy mother and father.’ Rightly do we celebrate them, righty do these two solemnities interrupt our penance during Lent. The solemnities of St Joseph and of the Annunciation point to the great feast of the Nativity, in which we celebrate the birth of the One born to save his people from their sins by his obedience, even unto death on a cross.
The intermingling of sorrow and joy is the pattern of Christian life. We are pulled from the gloom represented by the purple cloth in the midst of Lent, and we mourn on the solemnities of the martyrs–St Stephen and the Holy Innocents at Christmas and St Mark, St Philip and St James at Easter–during times of celebration. This pattern reminds us that we are living in the time between the dawn of salvation and its consummation. And so we wait in gloom but not in despair; we wait in joyful expectation even as we do penance, for the One who has died is risen, and will come again in glory.
St Joseph, pray for us!