St. Joseph: Man with a Mission,
Enlightened Obedience, and Vigilant Energy
by Fr. David May
Synopsis of the Gospel reading:
Following the virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. 'Where is the infant king of the Jews?' they asked. 'We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.' When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and sent the wise men on to Bethlehem and told them to let him know where they found the child. They did find him with his mother Mary; they fell on their knees, and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and returned home by a different route.
Then the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, because Herod intends to search for the child and kill him.' So, Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt.
I'd like to focus for a few moments on the illumination that Joseph received from the angel in his dream, because it's relevant to our own obeying the Lord and receiving him into our hearts.
Recently I spent a little time before the unique, hand-carved statue of St. Joseph in our chapel, and prayed about the Gospel passage that focuses on St. Joseph's response to the coming of Christ. I had a chance to really look at his face. What struck me this time was what the artist captured; it's the vigilance of St. Joseph. He's a man with a mission. He's a man who has purpose, and he's extremely given over to it. He's vigilant. There's an energy ready to move.
Joseph knows that what is at stake here is very, very great. He's going to give everything for this, and that means a vigilance and an energy and a call to expend himself. And he will. Whatever is needed, whatever it takes, he will do. Joseph is addressed as 'son of David', so he knows that something special must be happening now, for this angel to appear in a dream. The key moment has come. God is now going to intervene, is intervening, in a way beyond expectations (except that it is expected that God would do something marvelous). Now he is. Joseph knows that.
So Joseph awakens. There is in St. Joseph an alertness, a vigilance, all the qualities of his obedience that we're familiar with. We know that obedience calls for an expenditure of self. Christ was obedient and he gave everything. In our community of Madonna House, as in parishes, we expend ourselves for a liturgical feast. If you don't expend yourself for a feast, it must not be much of a feast! But when it's a feast of the Lord, we really expend ourselves, we give of ourselves. Everyone's called into it. Everyone's called beyond themselves in preparing in numerous ways to celebrate the feast.
So, Joseph is about to step into high gear. He is going to be running for his life, running to save the Child's life, running to Egypt.
In the dorm where I was living a few years ago, there was a beautiful reproduction of a painting by a French artist, titled: The Flight into Egypt. It was a very intriguing painting. It's huge, the original is very large, and it's almost all darkness; it's night. They're in Egypt, and they just made it there. The Salvation of the world just made it, under the wire! They just got out of the clutches of those who were after the Child–you can tell.
Mary is lying with the Child, exhausted, on the paw of a sphinx. She's exhausted, but she's safe. There's only one light in that whole painting. It's the little tiny campfire that Joseph has lit for warmth. It's so beautiful because the Child is lying there, asleep. But he made it. And that light illumines Our Lady. It's the only light in the night. It's the perfect painting.
But I think Joseph never lost this other quality. He looked at Our Lady and her Son, and he knew God would be faithful. God is faithful. He knew it, and he trusted it. And let's not say that because he could physically see Mary and Jesus, that it was easier for him. Do you think it's going to be less mysterious when we see God? Rather than more? It will be all light, yes. But do you think that the people who see God physically are less mystified than those of us who walk in faith? The more we know him, the more mystified we are. So, Joseph is caught in a mystery, and how beautiful it is.
It seems to me, in conclusion, that those who, with Joseph, bear a burden, who walk in obedience, who expend themselves, run for their lives, so to speak, run for the lives of somebody else, expending themselves–they know joy. Joseph is the man of joy. Greater than the flight, greater than the struggle, is his joy–because God is who he is; that's why.
You and I may not feel that the abyss we're in at the moment is all joy, but Joseph can point the way to that joy, and assure us of its truth. Joseph is the man of truth, "the just man"; he'll help us sort out what is true. Joseph is a father in the spirit. He will help us sort out what is true from what is false–the lie that darkness is greater; the truth that Light is with us, the Light that brings eternal joy.
From a homily to the Madonna House community, Dec. 23, 2001.