The Catholic Church only has two “feast” days dedicated to the Foster father of Jesus Christ, Saint Joseph. The primary one being March 19th, the day tradition believes he died – and today, May 1 -which is a more recent addition. Today’s celebration of St. Joseph the Worker was only added to the Church calendar in 1955. At that time, with the rise of Socialism and Communism which (as Pope Benedict the XV pointed out) is a “bitter enemy to Christian principles” (and sorry, not sorry – it still is) Those destructive ideologies put a supreme value on “work” as an end to itself to provide a “communion of goods” and de-emphasized the role of “fatherhood” – seeing the government and government leaders in that role (an incredibly frightening thought). With that in mind, the Church felt the urgency to counteract those teachings by emphasizing St. Joseph as a model of workers who as a carpenter was a hard working man but the center of His life was God, what was most important was Jesus and his mother Mary.
With that in mind, it’s kind of curious when we think about the Gospel reading that was chosen for today [read it here]. Of all the people and names mentioned, the only one who isn’t is Joseph. As the crowd is dismissive and rejecting of Jesus, they point out “that’s Mary’s son” – they name other relatives (that the Gospel calls brothers and sisters, which adds confusion since Mary was a perpetual virgin… more accurately these were cousins of Jesus) But they don’t name Joseph. They ask “is he not the carpenter’s son?” It’s meant to demean Jesus – basically asking “who does he think he is” – His father is “just a carpenter.”
That also demeans Joseph – his name is not uttered, for this crowd as a person, as an individual he is forgotten… they just remember the man by his job: carpenter. Those who say these things, who harbor these thoughts are described as “taking offense at Jesus.”
Which is why in a sense it’s such an interesting choice for us on this feast day where the dignity of work is celebrated. Because we honor, we respect the labor, the jobs, all of the work that people engage in – but we don’t believe that defines a person. Our identities are not established by what we do. Our value as a person isn’t determined by the work we accomplish. Which goes against not just communist, socialist ideologies – but pretty much any economic system, and sadly our very secular society that views and reduces people to those things… what can you do for me? What have you done for me lately?
In Jesus, our true dignity, our true identities which were lost in original sin, (and are diminished in the sins we still commit) has been restored. We are beloved sons and daughters of our lovingly, Heavenly Father. St. Joseph began to experience that reality when he listened to the angel who invited him into the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus. It’s in listening and being obedient to God that Joseph is more than “just a carpenter.” Joseph’s name is still venerated centuries later, while those demeaning him in this crowd remain nameless and forgotten to history. The same is true today… Our name’s are known by God, our Father… our identities as children, as sons and daughters has been made possible by our being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That gives us a dignity that no one can take away from us… That’s a dignity that we bring to whatever work it is we’re called to do. It reminds me of the quote that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” St. Joseph pray for us that in all that we do, in all the work that we engage, we may glorify God.