Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary
2 Sam 7:4-5a, 12-14a, 16; Rom 4:13, 16-18, 22; Matt 1:16, 18-21, 24a
St. Joseph and Mary, pray for me to the Lord our God
That He, in His tender mercy, might deliver me from my plans.
In the 2007 comedy, “Evan Almighty,” Evan Baxter is a newly elected congressman from Buffalo, ready to “change the world.” No sooner does he move to Washington than God (played beautifully by Morgan Freeman) appears to him, commands him to drop all his plans and build an ark. The construction site: several vacant lots in the newly developed upper middle class neighborhood in the suburbs of D.C., where Evan and his family have recently moved. Not wishing to make a public fool out of himself, Evan protests: “You have to understand, this whole building an ark thing is really not part of my plans here. I mean, I need to settle into my house, I need to make a good impression at work ….” Before Evan can finish, God doubles over in a joyful laughter and says, “Your plans!” and continues laughing. (For a short clip of the scene, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80x9FmKsyg4) (cf. Psalm 2:4)
Devotion to St. Joseph has a long history, extending back well into the Middle Ages, as does today’s solemnity; but since the late 19th century, St. Joseph has taken on new significance. In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared him patron and protector of the universal church. In 1955, Pope Pius XII added a second feast day – the celebration of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1. Popes Leo XIII, John XXIII, and John Paul II have, in various ways, encouraged devotion to St. Joseph. Why?
Evan Baxter points us in the right direction. He is a comic portrayal of an all-too-familiar modern Type: the “rational planner” or “manager” who thinks she/he possesses the requisite methods and skills to manage the world – whether it be the big things of the global economy or the small details of personal existence. This Type does not so much refer to a particular class of people; rather, it is an inner voice in each of us. It is an essential part of our socialization as citizens of the modern world, influencing, among other things, our sense of what it means to be respectable.
The voice of “the manager” is not without its problems. As Henri de Lubac observed, “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that without God he can ultimately only organize it against man.” How so? Consider the example of St. Joseph. God was acting in Mary, in ways that Joseph, her spouse, could not see. Joseph’s plans to divorce her quietly (Matt 1:19) were made in good conscience. His plans were just and compassionate as far as he knew; but how tragic, if he had gone through with them! Fortunately, he had the faith of Abraham, which enabled him to consider “the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:3) In this way, he was able to accomplish the Justice that comes from faith. (Rom 4:13)
The voice of the “inner manager” is a genuine voice; but its vision is limited. To use the oft-quoted words from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” What is this “more” which Horatio’s rationality cannot see? As St. Paul reminds the Romans, God is radically for us; and His providential love is always and everywhere at work in us. (Rom 8:31-39). This is the “Kingdom of God” which Christ preaches in the gospels, and the “Justice of God,” which St. Paul proclaims. Without the faith of Abraham, my plans, however well-intentioned, will miss the fullness of the good which God is enacting in myself and others.
Finally, what are we to make of St. Joseph’s significance as patron of the universal church? Two thoughts come to mind. First, the Church is a source of shame and embarrassment, if judged solely by the rationalities which have developed in tandem with the modern State, Market, and Science. Many a righteous person has judged it necessary to divorce her quietly, dreaming of what she could have been, had she only maintained her purity. The Church offers the genuine anguish of such persons to the intercession St. Joseph the Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Second, Paul tells us throughout his letters that the faith which accomplishes God’s justice cannot develop and function apart from the body of Christ. (Rom 12:3-5; I Cor 12:12-31)
Dr. David Foote
Associate Professor of Catholic Studies