Homily for the Solemnity of St. Joseph March 19, 2021
The texts of this sacred liturgy that we are joyfully singing and hearing proclaimed take us deep into the mystery of St. Joseph and reveal why the universal Church holds St. Joseph in such affectionate regard. It is our special joy to celebrate his solemnity this day in the Year of St. Joseph declared by our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
“Behold, a faithful and prudent steward, whom the Lord set over his household,” we sang as the priests and ministers entered the sanctuary. With this “behold” the Church’s gaze is backward in time to this description of St. Joseph as the head of the Holy Family, protector of the Virgin Mary and foster father of the eternally begotten Son. But her gaze is also cast upward toward heaven where this same St. Joseph stands near now the boy and man — the God-man! — he helped to form and raise. It is from the perspective of the glorified incarnate Son that we ponder the role of St. Joseph in that Son’s life; and as we ponder it there, we begin to understand St. Joseph’s role in our lives too, for Christian life is itself our being conformed more and more to the image of the divine incarnate Son. This is how we prayed in the Collect, asking God that, through St. Joseph’s intercession, we, the Church, may “watch over the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation, whose beginnings were entrusted to St. Joseph’s faithful care.”
In the first reading we heard the words of the wondrous promise to David, uttered through the mouth of Nathan the prophet. “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me,” the Lord promises David and his descendants. This reading set us up to hear the significance of the direct address of the angel to Joseph in his dream that we heard about in the Gospel. The angel calls him, “Joseph, son of David!” We savored this thought as we sang the responsorial psalm, repeating again and again the awesome promise, now fully aware of its completion in St. Joseph and then in Jesus, the definitive Son of David. “The Son of David will live forever,” we sang. “The favors of the Lord I will sing forever.” As we sang this song, we realize that we thereby splice into St. Joseph’s heavenly condition. It is he who sings this song forever, forever marveling at the promise to David fulfilled in him and in the boy Jesus, whom he nurtured and raised for his saving work.
The second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, treated us to some of Paul’s deep digging into ancient texts of scripture to discover there how every promise of the Old Testament finds its culmination in the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus. Here he speaks of Abraham and the promise made to him and his descendants that Abraham would be the father of many nations. This was a promise that came into effect because Abraham believed, not because he had been faithful in observance of a law. This belief was credited to him as “righteousness.” This sets us up for hearing in the Gospel the significance of Joseph being called “a righteous man.” Paul is presuming that his reader knows the Abraham stories, that Abraham put his faith in God despite all appearances that such a promise could ever be fulfilled in a couple as old as he and Sarah, and then later, despite the seemingly contradictory command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham obeyed and trusted right up to the last moment, and for his obedience he received his son Isaac, back from the dead, as it were. This is why Paul says, so precisely in the passage we heard, “Abraham is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist.” His immediate reference is to Isaac, received “back from the dead and called into being before he existed,” but, of course, this foreshadows the ultimate and definitive descendant of Abraham: Jesus Christ, “back from the dead,” together with all his descendants — us! — members of his body!
The Gospel passage we heard today began with the words “Jacob was the father of Joseph.” But that actually is the last in the long list of names in the genealogy of Jesus that begins with these words, words, in fact, that solemnly open Matthew’s entire gospel. It reads, “A family record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” So, St. Joseph is the last in the line of “fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian captivity, fourteen generations from the Babylonian captivity to this present moment that the Gospel today recounts.
In that Gospel, the whole world holds its breath. Very much against what it would seem when Mary, his betrothed, was found to be with child before they lived together, Joseph must show himself a son of Abraham and believe an angel’s message that Mary is “with child through the Holy Spirt.” Joseph must show himself a son of David, taking Mary into his home and naming the child, thereby inserting him into the Davidic line for its definitive fulfillment. The holy and powerful name of Jesus! — first pronounced by Joseph as he gives name and house to the divine child and his virgin mother! And let’s imagine him: again and again calling him by this name — Jesus! “Jesus, wake up. Jesus, it’s time for dinner. Jesus, your mother is calling you. Jesus, it’s time to go to work.” The holy name pronounced by Joseph during all the years in which “the child grows in wisdom and grace before God and all the people.”
Throughout virtually the whole history of this monastery St. Joseph has been our special friend and protector. Our forefathers entrusted to him, following ancient practices, especially the material concerns of our monastery, seminary, and all our apostolates. And he has saved us again and again. In more recent years we have turned to him to pray also for vocations to our monastery, and in the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10, he has blessed us with many new and beautiful vocations.
One can well wonder why within the Church it is an ancient practice to entrust in prayer material needs to St. Joseph’s care. Shouldn’t we be praying for more lofty graces? Well, a deep understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation is expressed in this practice, because caring first for material needs is what St. Joseph did for Jesus and Mary — for years, for decades probably. Life on planet Earth doesn’t work without food and shelter and clothing and the work that is required to keep those things in place in our lives. If God’s plan is to be God with us by the eternal Son’s assuming a human nature and sharing in our condition in all things but sin, then material needs and keeping them supplied must happen for the incarnate Son as well; and making such things happen is thereby sanctified.
In a similar way, monastic life cannot be “a search for things above” unless the goods of the Earth are also acquired and constantly supplied. As St. Joseph watched over and provided for the eternal Father’s only begotten Son in his incarnate mission, St. Joseph continues to watch over that same Son as he joins us to himself in one body. That is what this monastery is meant to be and, by the grace of God, has been. We are meant to be one body with Christ, and through, with, and in him to offer now from our earthly existence the one same sacrifice of praise that the crucified and risen Lord continually sings at his Father’s right hand.
As we come forward for holy communion this morning, we will be singing a wondrously joyous melody set to words from the very mouth of Jesus, and we hear them today as addressed especially to Joseph by Jesus, who loves him so very much. He says to Joseph, “Come, O good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” And as St. Joseph hears us singing for him, he turns to Jesus and intercedes for us, saying something like, “You’ll say it one day to all of them too, won’t you? I’m watching over you, dear Jesus, dear Son, growing in them too. You are in them, and I will always watch over and protect you… protect you all.”
St. Joseph, we thank you, and we entrust ourselves to your watchful care.
Homily for the Feast of Epiphany 2021
Balaam was a Canaanite soothsayer at the time Israel was coming into the land after its forty years of desert wandering. He figures in stories recounted in the Book of Numbers, and, interestingly, there is some evidence of his historical existence from beyond the biblical record. He apparently was admired for his ability to predict the future during his prophetic trances. The king of Moab tried to enlist him to employ his oracular powers to curse Israel and so destroy their progressive entry into the land. Balaam tried to resist, but when the king insisted, Balaam warned him that he would not necessarily be able to curse Israel but could only say what God would prompt him to say. The king took his gamble, and – too bad for him – what Balaam uttered were two beautiful and mysterious blessings on Israel. (The Church reads these blessings in her Advent liturgy on Monday of the third week.) Looking out over the encampment of Israel in great numbers – the very reason the Moabite king had called for the curse – Balaam was compelled to utter, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel… he shall have the sea within reach, his king shall rise higher and his royalty shall be exalted.”
The king was furious at these words and screeched at Balaam that it was a curse he had asked for, not a blessing. He told him to try again. Balaam attempted to warn him off, but in the end yet another blessing emerged out of the soothsayer’s mouth. The Church has always understood that, unknowingly, it was of Jesus, Son of David, that he spoke. In his trance these words flowed from his mouth, “I see him, though not now; I behold, though not near: a star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”
I remind you today of these intriguing biblical stories because, although Balaam later finished badly, we nonetheless hear in his pagan mouth genuine religious prophecy and truth. As such he represents for us the pattern of the Magi in today’s gospel story. The world’s history is full of such figures: religious searchers with elements of genuine true wisdom achieved in their search and arriving, however gropingly, at last to what is the true goal of every religion, every philosophical query, every scientific probing of the skies or the depths, every prophecy. That goal is, to quote the text of the gospel telling us what the Magi found, “the child with Mary his mother.” Epiphany celebrates the Magi arriving here, who represent in their persons all Gentiles coming to Israel to find in Israel’s Messiah their Savior and Lord as well.
How did the Magi get there? Who were they? They are said to come from the East. Were they Persian astronomers? Possibly. There is much to admire in how much those priest scientists of the era were able to say and predict about the movement of planets and stars. They stared into the starry night at what appeared to them a dance of the glorious array, where all the stars managed to move through the course of the night and yet hold their same position in reference to all the countless others, while some few others, brighter ones, wandered in different but also predictable directions. These they called “wanderers,” or in Greek, planets. Living under such glorious, complex predictability in their clear night skies, and without the advantage of Israel’s revealed knowledge of the origin of the created world, how could these people not wonder if perhaps this movement of the stars contained some clues for them about the meaning of existence itself, which every human heart cannot help but wonder about, often with a sense of anguish. And so, the Persian sages accumulated and passed on over time wisdom and wonder and hope. Such searching still goes on in peoples.
Occasionally something extraordinary will develop in the night skies. The wandering planets may draw close to one another and create a single brightness, awesome to behold. Or a comet or supernova may streak through the sky for nights on end, eventually finishing who knows where. We cannot know with precision what may have been happening in the night skies to move the Magi to set out for Jerusalem in search there of what might be a savior for them as well. But there was something in their open hearts and minds that moved them to set out in hopes of finding. No star moves like the one the story tells, shining, guiding, disappearing, shining again, and stopping over a precise location. If it was their staring in the skies that enabled the Magi to first set out, as they draw closer to their goal, we realize that the stars are in no way controlling the story, are controlling destiny, as many of the ancients believed. The child for whom they search is controlling the stars, for he made them. The whole cosmos speaks of him and points to him when discerned aright. The stars move at his command. No ordinary star and no ordinary and predictable moving. “What star is this that shines so bright, more beauteous than the noon day light!”
After the Magi had received the indication from the Jewish scribes that Bethlehem was the predicted location of the Messiah’s birth, the star appears again and leads them on. We read, “They were exceedingly overjoyed at seeing the star.” But in the end, they find something greater and more awesome than this wondrous star. “They enter the house and find the child and Mary his mother.” They have an immediate reaction that we should pause to let sink in. They throw themselves to the ground in adoration of the child, plainly recognizing him as their Lord and Savior too. By the three different gifts they offer in homage, they express their faith: gold for a king, incense for a god, myrrh as a cryptic prophesy of the death by which he would save the world. After this we are simply told that they departed for their own country again. We might think that they would want to hang around, now that they had found the world’s Lord and Savior. But here as well a higher and interior providence guides them from within. They are content to know that the Savior is here and to let the destiny of the child unfold in God’s own good time.
When these Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the question they asked was “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This is a Gentile way of asking the question. Jews themselves throughout their history and in their scriptures spoke of “the king of Israel.” The only other place that we will see this title for Jesus again is in the inscription that Pilate, another Gentile, has affixed to the Lord’s cross, an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek so that Gentiles too could read this sign. “Jesus of Nazareth,” it read, “King of the Jews.” The very language of the Magi’s question becomes, without their knowing it, a prophesy of the cross.
When Herod heard this question posed, we read that “he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” This too, obscure at this point, is also a prophesy of the cross, for when Jesus enters the holy city as a grown man to face his passion in a triumphant procession with palms, again we will read that the city and its rulers were “greatly troubled.”
You know how the story continues. An angel warns Joseph that “Herod is searching for the child to destroy him.” To destroy Jesus – once again, in this detail too the pattern of the passion is already unfolding. The murder of all the infant boys in Bethlehem also foretells the blood that will be shed by many martyrs associated with Jesus, first in John the Baptist, then in his apostles, then in his disciples still even into our own day. But the destiny of the child whom Herod tries to destroy is secure in the hands of his heavenly Father – at his birth, throughout his ministry, and even in his passion and death. Joseph flees Herod by taking the child and his mother into Egypt. But this only happens so that in the end the prophet’s word might be fulfilled, the word that says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” This phrase is a summary of Israel’s entire history, of that history recapitulated in the life of Jesus, and finally a prophesy of the resurrection of the crucified. Yes, indeed, “ ’out of Egypt I have called my Son’ and raised him from the dead,” declares Jesus’ Father.
Dear confreres, dear friends, we have come here today like the Magi. We can say with them, “We have come with gifts to adore the Lord.” He in turn will hand himself over to us in his eucharistic body and blood. Now of us the sacred text speaks which proclaims, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” I look at us, nourished by his flesh in us, and I see that the ancient words of the pagan prophet are still ringing true: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel.”