Saturday, 2 May 2020

Finishing Works in the Lord: Joseph the Worker

THE FEAST OF St. Joseph the Worker was instituted by Ven. Pope Pius XII in 1955.

The date chosen for the feast is not a coincidence. The first of May, originally an ancient Spring festival called “May Day,” heralded the new season with pagan rituals and customs (e.g. the ‘May Pole’), still practiced in diverse ways in many European countries with or without their original religious connotations.

In the nineteenth century May Day was chosen as the choice day of the Socialists and Communists for ‘International Worker’s Day’. It remains a secular “festival” till today, sometimes called “Labour Day,” especially commemorated by worker’s unions (not all socialist), and socialist and communist States.

May Day is a public holiday in many countries.

Catholic pious tradition has long since enculturated the ancient celebration of May Day. It is a traditional practice to crown Mary, usually with a wreathe of roses, on the first of May which is considered “Mary’s month,” a month especially dedicated to devotion to Mary (see Rev 12:1).

Following the development of Catholic social teaching, championed by Pope Leo XIII in response to the socialist trends of the time, Pius XII providentially selected May Day as the day for Joseph the Worker.

In selecting this day, we see at work the incarnational logic of the Catholic faith. Instead of doggedly denouncing everything pushed by the socialist and communist agenda, Pius XII takes the true Catholic approach: to take the radical left-wing proclamation of an International Worker’s Day as an opportunity to affirm that which the natural law attests, and the Judeo-Christian tradition has esteemed with a divine sensibility: the noble and essential role work plays in human life, and its essential dignity. The Christian spirit esteems work all the more, recognising the enrichment it brings to the sustaining and development of the human person, family and society in light of Jesus Christ, the God Man, who in becoming one of us worked like us, and lived for thirty years as a carpenter.

 In choosing May Day to celebrate Joseph in the context of “The Worker” the Church is saying, “Look here, do not look to man made ideologies. The socialists and communists are right to esteem the value of the worker, but they do not understand the true and divine dignity of work, and the real meaning of what it means to be a worker. They have a pinch of the truth but miss out on so much! Look here instead to Christ, look here to St. Joseph, the appointed Father to Jesus, who taught Jesus the practical craft of workmanship and provided for God Himself and the Blessed Virgin Mary by the work of his hands. So sacred is work that God the Creator, the Sustainer of the Universe, humbled himself, and willed Himself to be sustained by the work of human hands, above all, the work of a man named Joseph, who together with Mary sheltered, fed, clothed and supported God as a child, an adolescent and as a young man. How can we, finite creatures, spurn work and its supernatural purpose when the Creator Himself, All-Powerful and All-Mighty, put his hand to the plane and the plough?”

Paul exhorts us. “Everything you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Col 3:17).

This is exactly what Joseph did to perfection. Everything he did was done for the sake of Jesus his Son, for the glory of the Father above. Even before Joseph joined Mary in wedlock, under mutual vows of virginity, everything Joseph did was out of anticipation for the Messiah. What a blessing to be chosen as the man called “abba,” “father,” by God Himself. Joseph was enraptured by the Wonder Child. It filled His heart with joy and peace to see Jesus grow and to know that everything He did was for Him, for the boy and God whom He called “Son”.

Joseph sets for us an example to live by. That everything we do, whether in word or deed, we do it out of love for Jesus, imbued with a faith that we are working and operating with Him, in Him and through Him, in thanksgiving to the Father who pays us in return with the free wage we do not deserve or merit, the wage of grace and salvation, the blessings of holiness and increase in the extent of our participation in the divine nature (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 1:4).

Why work when we receive the grace of life in Christ through faith? Well, Joseph shows us that authentic faith in Jesus is not idle, nor an abstraction of the intellect, but an engagement of the whole person, mind, body and will, in professing that Jesus is Lord. As Paul in his letter to the Colossians writes, “Whatever you do, work from the soul [with all your being], for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the reward of the inheritance. For it is the Lord Christ that you serve” (3:23-24). Our ordinary human activities, short of sin, can all be offered to Jesus as a work of praise. Only in heaven (by God’s good grace!) will we know the spiritual ripple effect our smallest offerings of love have had on the world in drawing souls to Christ and bringing spiritual relief to those in need, the living and the dead.

The incapacity of the free exercise of mind or body is no obstacle to this profession of faith that summons our whole being to worship and proclaim Christ, since it subsists in the assent of the intellect and will, our interior spirit, and manifests itself in our bodies no matter their capacity. The healthy body can glorify God in hard physical work or any other kind of work, from cooking to cleaning, to paper work and study; while the bodies and minds of the frailest carry out a hidden work that can cooperate in a profound way in Jesus’ work of redemption, where on the Cross His body glorified God to an exalted degree even though pinned in immobility.

In Genesis we read that “on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (2:2). These words, however one takes them, speak to a fundamental truth. God created everything that is, and after completing the original array of all created things and setting in motion created reality with all its laws and mechanisms, figuratively, God “rested,” that is, although He could have continued to create new heavens and new earths, and would and does continue to exercise His creative power in upholding the world and all its creatures, visible and invisible, God has chosen to settle with creating this heavens and this earth, although indeed, they will be radically renewed at the end of time, they will fundamentally remain the heavens and the earth God chose to create at the very beginning.

We see this theme of “finishing” in the concluding prayer for the Office of St. Joseph the Worker.

Lord God and Creator of the universe,
  you imposed on mankind the law of work.
Give us grace, by Saint Joseph’s example and at his intercession,
  to finish the works you give us to do,
  and to come to the rewards you promise.

“Give us grace, by Joseph’s example and at his intercession, to finish the works you give us to do.” What is meant by finish here? What makes a work complete in God’s eyes?

It is tempting to adopt a rationalistic and economic definition of a completed or finished work as that which is tangibly and measurably accomplished. A finished house is a finished house. It can’t be missing a roof or interior features. To finish weeding one’s front lawn means all the weeds have been removed, or at least by relative standards, all the weeds one intended to weed, either before starting or after one realised how much weeds there really were. One retires and ‘finishes up’ their career, when they have completed their term of employment. It’s a no-brainer, we know what it means for something to be literally or relatively finished according to the standards of the world.

God’s idea of completion is much different. From God’s perspective many works carried out by human hands, that are judged “finished” or “complete” by human standards, are incomplete. All human actions, all human works, from the intellectual to the practical, that are not imbued with a supernatural love for God and neighbour are spiritually incomplete. Such works have failed to attain to a supernatural end and to their final end—God Himself, by appropriation, principally to the Person of the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. They have failed to reach their destined goal post. They have failed to attain the completion of the "Sabbath". Conversely, those works imbued with supernatural love, with an underlying intention “to do” for God and act in His Will, in His Love, in Him, with Him, and through Him, such acts have soared to heavenly proportions and have found their rest in the Father’s hands.

All our works, even the most menial, are called back to the Creator who made us.

At the end of the day, even if we completed nothing by the standards of the world and by the standards we might set for ourselves, if everything we did happened to be offered to God in love, without neglect to the needs of our neighbours around us, such a day would be complete in God’s eyes and so would all its composite works.

Divine love alone can bring spiritual completion to our works.

This is not to undermine the duty, value and sometimes even moral prerogative to strive towards completing works in the temporal order according to earthly standards, but it does put them in perspective as groundless and ultimately worthless if carried out without love. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1). “For what profits a man if he gains the whole world [without love] but loses his own soul” (Mt 16:26). Only grafted to Jesus can our souls and our works be imbued with eternal life and bear everlasting fruit (Jn 15).

Joseph’s life testifies to this truth in a profound way. Tradition has it that Joseph died before Jesus’ public ministry, likely, only shortly before. Joseph wasn’t there to see his Son fulfil His main mission. Joseph wasn’t physically present at the Cross. Nor was he physically there to nurture the faith of the Apostles after Jesus’ Ascension, despite being the expert on Jesus after Mary. There’s something so ordinary about Joseph’s life that it can almost be dissatisfying at first encounter. It was terribly dissatisfying for many in Jesus’ hometown, a cause for disbelief in His divine nature, “We know him, that’s just Jesus, the carpenter’s son!” (para. Mt 13:55).

Joseph the Worker was originally an obstacle for many in their belief in Jesus. Perhaps he remains an obstacle for many today. Maybe some would find a God who zapped down to earth in triumphant form and spent his years outside the secrecy of a carpenter’s workshop more believable!

But for those who do believe, Joseph the Worker is a helpmate for the interior life.

There was no outward glory for Joseph during his lifetime. He did not work the amazing miracles of the Apostles. He did not share the limelight of His Son’s public ministry. There isn’t much about Joseph in the Gospels, and none of his words are recorded, only some of his actions, and these actions remained veiled until after his death.

Yet Joseph is vehemently revered by the Church as the greatest Saint, eclipsed only by Mary. All the merit and value of Joseph’s life is thus wrapped up in the ordinary actions of His hidden life spent working alongside Mary in love for Jesus. Joseph the Worker shows us that the value of a life is not judged on anything else. He silently echoes Paul:

“Whatever you do, do it for the Lord, for He is the real Master you serve. Know that you will receive from the Lord the reward of the inheritance."

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord."

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