Just like Christ's foster father, we can draw strength from the Lord if we deny ourselves worldly pleasures
Catholics know that 19 March is the Feast of St Joseph. Fewer, perhaps, are aware that the entire month of March is dedicated to the Most Chaste Heart.
That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? March is dominated by the Lenten fast, which is itself a preparation for Eastertide. According to tradition, Our Lord’s foster-father didn’t live to see his public ministry. In fact, it was necessary that St Joseph pass from this life before Christ could reveal Himself. Only then would Jesus become head of the royal House of David – both God and King by birthright.
But what has any of this to do with Lent? The answer is this: St Joseph was the first Christian mystic. He is the exemplar of the hidden life, the interior life: that which is most pleasing to God, and which we’re called to imitate during the fast.
In his 1931 spiritual classic The Truth about St Joseph, Fr Maurice Meschler observes,
“The prophets, the Apostles, and the martyrs proclaimed the divinity of Jesus and were rewarded with distinction and glory. Saint Joseph’s vocation, as long as he lived, was to hide this divinity. He was the shadow of the heavenly Father, not only in the sense that he was the visible representative of the eternal Father in regard to Jesus, but because under the guise of a natural fatherhood he concealed the divinity of the Son.
“According to his vocation, then, Saint Joseph is essentially a shadow, which, like an ordinary shadow, passing noiselessly over the earth and covering everything it meets, conceals his Son, Jesus, and even the marvels of his spouse, Mary, her virginity and divine motherhood. The saint throws himself heart and soul into this unique vocation of placing the mantle of obscurity over everything and during his whole life does not deny this vocation, even by a single word.”
St Joseph hid the incarnate God in his little house in the flyover town of Nazareth. To their friends and neighbors, the Holy Family was happy but unextraordinary. Joseph’s pretty young wife was gentle and obedient, and their boy was good-natured and hard-working. They’d see Joseph and Jesus in their carpentry shop as father taught son their trade, preparing him for the unexceptional life of a working-class Jew living in the fringes of the Roman Empire.
But in their home, sitting at the head of the table – rubbing his calloused hands, flicking sawdust off his tunic – St Joseph would spend hours watching Our Lady nurse the Christ-Child, bathe him, sing him to sleep. He would take the baby’s tiny feet into his rough, strong hands and kiss his toes, as fathers do: those feet that would, just a few short decades later, bear the sacred wounds that redeem mankind.
Being a poor man, there would be days when Joseph would go without food to ensure his child had enough to eat. He’d wear his sandals to ribbons so that his wife could be clothed with dignity and modesty. Like every father and husband, he toiled to give his family a good home; in the faithful execution of these simple duties, he became one of the great protagonists in the epic of our salvation.
Our Lord and Our Lady were St Joseph’s secret treasure. By his devotion and self-sacrificing love, he was allowed to spend his years adoring Christ and His Virgin Mother in the peace of his own home and by the work of his simple craft. His poverty and obscurity brought him greater joy than all of Herod’s wealth, and more power than all of Caesar’s legions. These he kept close to himself, uniting his Most Chaste Heart to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He met the happiest end of any man: literally dying in their arms, with the promise that they would be united again very soon.
This is why mystics have always found in Joseph a kindred spirit. St Teresa of Ávila wrote in her autobiography, “I took for my advocate and lord the glorious Saint Joseph and commended myself earnestly to him.” She found in him a spiritual teacher, who guided her heart to greater devotion and her mind to greater discipline:
I have never known anyone to be truly devoted to him and render him particular services who did not notably advance in virtue, for he gives very real help to souls who commend themselves to him. For some years now, I think, I have made some request of him every year on his festival and I have always had it granted. If my petition is in any way ill directed, he directs it aright for my greater good.
On this Ash Wednesday, let’s take St Joseph as our Lenten role-model. By denying ourselves worldly pleasures, may we learn to take our joy and strength from Christ and His Mother. In reading Scripture, we can draw closer to the person of Our Lord. By praying the Sorrowful Mysteries every day, we can share the dolor of His Mother on Good Friday. By dying of ourselves in their arms, we may awaken on Easter at the foot of the Heavenly throne, feasting with the saints and singing Hallelujah with the angels.
St Joseph, ora pro nobis. From your shadow, the light of the world.