St. Joseph and the Fruitfulness of Lent

March 20, 2012

The fruitfulness of Lent is a matter of a lifetime. Often we take one Lent at a time: a particular time of the year when we give alms, pray, and fast. In the very least, it is a time when we give these things somewhat more than a passing glance. Yet, it remains only a time of the year, like a birthday that comes and goes or some other anniversary.  What changes us more than anything else is simply the passage of time.  It is “another” Lent. After a while, like birthdays, we stop counting. As we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, today, we pause to ask ourselves, “What fruitfulness has Lent born in our life?”  Lent is not merely a moment in the calendar but an essential way of sharing in God’s life.  St. Joseph was made fit to be the husband of Mary and a father to Jesus (cf. Luke 2:48), not in one moment or in one season of the year but through a life time of just choices. St. Joseph is the first person to be called “just” or “righteous” in the Gospel of Matthew.  Such righteousness was the fruit of a lifetime of choices, works of charity and mercy, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Although we do not have lengthy verses about him nor any of his own words in Scripture, what has been handed down to us speaks volumes about this quiet man of virtuous strength.  The insights we receive regarding his contemplative deliberations flowing into action, make St. Joseph a pattern of what was said much later by St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, St. Joseph receives the repulsive news that his bride, the one whom he loved and was about to welcome into his home, Mary, was with child from another.  The promise made during the first part of the wedding rite, the betrothal, was now shattered leaving behind the shards of shame and disgrace for everyone involved.  A joyous event and a time of new beginnings turned towards scandal and the ending of a life by stoning. Would not St. Joseph have been “justified by the law” to have his honor restored by shaming Mary? It would have been a “natural” reaction of many whose first thoughts at personal injury are anger, violence, and revenge.  Such reactions give fuel to a culture of blame, violence begetting violence, and unresolved reconciliation that embitters one to life. How would we have reacted? How do we react initially when people break their word or their promise to us? From forgetting about a time to meet for coffee to a serious injury to love, each moment on this spectrum brings various levels of resentment or pain that influence our future dealings in all our relationships. St. Joseph shows us another way.  A lifetime of living justly, faithful in Judaism, shaped his initial reaction foregoing anger for compassion.  Surely, St. Joseph was deeply disturbed by the awful news, yet his actions flowed from what was for the good of Mary whom he loved, as well as the reputation of her parents, Joachim and Anne.  His upright life and dignified work disposed him to something greater than he could have imaged.  He would be called to be an essential part of God’s plan for the salvation of all through the forgiveness of their sins.  He would now be entrusted with the paternal care for Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, and with the loving embrace of Mary as her husband. For his new family, St. Joseph would be a model, a guardian and protector, and a provider. Fittingly, the name Joseph, in Hebrew, means, “God adds or God increases”.  God increased the graces given to Joseph to endure the gossip, the stares, and taunts of others who could only see the infidelity of Mary.  They did not have the dream wherein Joseph hears the striking news, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Matt 1:20-21).” It is the righteous life, the virtuous life, and the faith filled life of St. Joseph, graced by God, that disposes him to discern a necessary action in a situation that places the needs of the other before his own need for justice. At this point, it is important to call to mind the Gospel of John, “From [Jesus Christ’s] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16).”  It is upon the graces God gave to St. Joseph, which he put to good use by translating them into a just life, that more was given him.  As St. Bernadine of Siena noted in his homily on St. Joseph, “Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand.” Special gifts were needed because Joseph continued to hear the messages of the angel and carried them out without compromise. Remember, Scripture tells us, “and her husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him…(Matt 1:19-20).”  Though Joseph was “resolved” to carry out his decision, he did not close his mind and heart to other possibilities as he continued to “consider” his solution.  It is in this moment that God intervenes to enlighten the mind and heart of Joseph with the necessary information to make a decision that is in accord with God’s plan. The revelation that Joseph received in a dream, the ancient vehicle for God’s message, added new information that Joseph did not know. Such knowledge, known only by revelation, now changed his former decision and, indeed, his entire life. He would not divorce Mary quietly but take her and her son, Jesus, into his home. In this, Joseph reminds us of an aspect of discerning God’s will in the midst of making a decision in times of crisis or at any time. Basically, it is to remain open to the promptings of God even when we think we have it all figured out.  Often, when we think all has been “figured out”, it is because we have seen the matter in isolation, as unconnected to other variables, like a Lenten season that comes once during the year without an impact on the way we live our life throughout the year. Seeking God’s will in our life necessarily entails setting time aside in silence to weigh what is before us while we give room for God to intervene and to enlighten us with what we do not see or with what we refuse to see. During this Lent, where is God seeking room in your matters of discernment?  What “noise” in your life prevents you from hearing Him or noticing His presence? Lent is always a time for us to reflect on our journey of holiness and how it is marked by love of God and love and neighbor.  Yet, for us to make progress on this journey we need to reclaim the moments of silence in our lives away from the TVs, radios, computers, iPods, headphones, and so much more.  We cannot discern God’s will in our life if we cannot hear Him.  Sounds simple. True. Yet, how much time do we give to silence each day? Silence is the medium in which Joseph receives a message from God.  The dreams of Joseph are symbolic of our moments of silence as we patiently await God’s message in our discernment of His will. As a man of virtue, each time Joseph receives a message from God in his dreams, he rises from slumber to act promptly, joyfully, and easily, which are characteristics of an action flowing from the virtues. Taking a quick look at Joseph’s responses to take Mary, her child, and, perhaps, the town gossip, into his otherwise quiet and uneventful home, we see that his actions fulfill the scriptural passage from the prophet Isaiah: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be Emmanuel (God with us).” Likewise, by following the angel’s message to journey into Egypt and the move to make a home in Nazareth, fulfills the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt I will call my son (Hosea 11:1)” and “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean (Matt 2:23).” Successful discernment is manifested in our lives when the Word of God and the teachings of the Church find fulfillment in our words and actions.  They may bring us where we do not want to go – we each have our own Egypts we would rather not venture out of, because even though they are places of slavery, they are also places of what is known. Fortunately, God is persistent and He will call us forth from these places so we can find liberation and restoration.  We can find in Him a true place to make our home. One of the great gifts given to St. Joseph was to name the Child Jesus. The act of naming the Child makes Joseph the legal father of Jesus, now joined to the House of David. Joseph assumes full responsibility to love, protect and provide for Mary and Jesus.  In addition, by naming his Holy Child Jesus, he affirms Jesus’ mission “to save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21).” Interestingly, one could say that Joseph “saved” Mary from the penalty of death of her perceived sin of infidelity by safely bringing her and her child into his home in an act of sacrificial love.  Jesus, through His sacrificial love, will save all peoples from their sin by standing silently before Pontius Pilate, enduring His passion and death, and being raised by His Heavenly Father so that He will ensure a home is ready for all of us because in His Father’s house there are many rooms. How fruitful is Lent? Much of the answer to this question depends on how each Lent shapes our way of life that becomes marked with prayer, almsgiving, fasting, righteousness, and worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). All aspects of our life are connected into one life, “me”, rather than the split personalities of my work life, my school life, my social life, my Sunday Mass life, etc. St. Joseph, the just and righteous man, was one who did the will of the Father, with strong love through hardships and life’s challenges. With St. Joseph and the psalmists, let us sing to God, “Preserve my soul and rescue me; do not let me be disgraced, for in you I seek refuge. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; I wait for you, O LORD. (Ps 25:20-21).”

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