It’s always a joy to be home – which St. Agnes, Clark, NJ truly is. I first became a Christian here Baptized a month after my birth. First Penance, First Communion, and many, many, many more communions after for years were in this Sacred Space – the Sacrament of Confirmation as a teenager- and was even blessed to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders when I was ordained a deacon the year before my priestly ordination right here. So much of my life of faith was formed, nurtured, and celebrated here.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the NOVENA IN HONOR OF ST. JOSEPH, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
One gift of faith, in particular, is my devotion to St. Joseph. It was 32 years ago when our (then) “new pastor” Fr. Marcone announced our first Annual Novena to St. Joseph. 32 years ago I had no idea what a Novena was – and little knowledge of St. Joseph. I kind of was shocked when Fr Marcone said it would mean coming to church for 9 consecutive nights (10 if we counted the feast day) and didn’t imagine it becoming a major thing. Which was an early lesson in humility as we gathered in great numbers each night. I learned pretty quickly not to underestimate Fr. Marcone’s ability to market things. That year he had these posters made up for the Novena and basically putting them in everyone’s hand as they left Sunday Mass and asked us to ask businesses around town to hang them up. More memorable was his insistence that we put these posters in our windows at home and on our doors with the promise that it had the added benefit of keeping Jehovah’s Witnesses from knocking on our doors. (That line was most memorable because I’m pretty sure that was what convinced my father to hang it up on our front door)
More importantly, even more memorable, and what has proven most true in my own life was Fr. Marcone’s promise that if we asked for St. Joseph’s prayers and intercession that these prayers “would never fail.” It’s hard to remember over 32 years how many times that has proven true in my own life and that has very much been the case. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.
Since this is the first night of this Annual Novena, it’s good to remember a few things. First and most important is never to forget that it is our All Good, All loving, All-powerful God: who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is the one who answers the prayers. Whenever we honor a Saint, when we have a Novena in honor of them, we are seeing what God has accomplished in their lives, with their cooperation with His grace. We are looking to the Saints as an example, as a mentor, as a guide to help us in our lives as we continue to face spiritual battles and temptations whether to conform to this world or to strive for holiness. So the Saints are a mix between being an inspiration, a coach for us – as well as someone who is in Heaven, in God’s presence, free from the distractions and temptations of this world, can intercede and pray for us more purely.
That being said, it’s kind of interesting to think about why we look to St. Joseph for those things: as a mentor, a guide, an intercessor, a friend. Sitting where you are, 32 years ago I knew very little about St. Joseph, and that first year as those talks were unfolding, it seemed like everyone emphasized that neither did anyone else. Starting from the most obvious fact: that it is so little is recorded about Joseph for us to reflect on. — to the point that he would seem to be an unlikely choice of Saints for us to go to compare with so many others. I mean we have spiritual masterpieces that were written by giants like St. Augustine, or Fr. Bill’s go-to, St. Therese of Lisieux that reading just a few sentences of theirs can cause deep reflection that devotion to them would be definitely understandable. We have incredibly detailed biographies of people whose lives so imitated Christ, like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta – that wanting to reflect on their examples, recognizing the challenge that their lives gently propose to us and asking for their prayers would make sense. We even have the dramatic selfless sacrificial imitations of Christ in St. Damien of Molokai who served lepers in Hawaii and contracted the disease and died of it himself, or the martyrdoms of St. Maxmillian Kolbe, or most obvious, ST AGNES that can easily be understood and appreciated as worthy of our attention, and we would find praying with them beneficial and fruitful in countless ways.
But for St. Joseph so much is missing for us to cling onto. We have basic biographical details, his family lineage coming from the line of King David, we know he was a carpenter or craftsman (since he probably wasn’t limited to simply woodwork). But there’s precious little known outside of those details. We don’t know when or how he died. We don’t know where he was buried. And much is made of the fact that there are no words of his captured in scripture.
When people first learn that “he’s never quoted in scripture” that comes as a bit of a surprise I think for most people. “That can’t be right” I remember thinking 32 years ago when I first heard a priest say that. Most likely that’s our reaction because we have our remembrances of scriptural stories mixed with our imaginations. So an episode like when Mary is about ready to give birth to Jesus, mixed with my own father figures in my own life whether it was a spiritual father like Fr. Marcone, my Grandfather, and most especially my own father – all three of whom were very outspoken Italian men, my mind imagined that scene and story very differently. I was convinced that I had read Joseph having had some words for that innkeeper when Mary was about to give birth to Jesus and the guy said there was no room for them. But it’s true all those speakers were accurate. We hear about Joseph in scripture, but we never hear from him in scripture. And for some time I found that frustrating.
But what I wanted to zero in on tonight is how the more we meditate on this seeming “silence” of Joseph speak to us, the more that speaks to us and we can hear from him. The more he testifies how God works in amazing, unconventional ways in a particular way through this humble servant. And how those lack of words invites us to go deeper: recognizing that just because St. Joseph isn’t quoted – doesn’t mean that he never had something to say, that he didn’t ever speak – and more importantly, that he doesn’t continue too in his own unique way which provides much to reflect on.
Because it’s important to remember that when we approach scripture, just as important to what is said – the seeming silences, the unspoken are also important. Joseph not being quoted doesn’t mean that he was a mute – or that he was somehow rendered speechless – which does happen in scripture and one of the most dramatic examples of that helps make this point.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, we hear a story that is parallel to the story of Jesus’ earthly origins. Most of us remember the story of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she would conceive and bear Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. This parallel is a similar visitation by the Angel to St. John the Baptist’s father Zechariah. Zechariah was a Jewish priest, and the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife in her old age was having their firstborn and only child John who would be the prophet preparing the world for Jesus. Mind you, Zechariah, this holy man, who would’ve known and studied scripture (he only had one job and that was basically it) Which means he should have been very well versed in all that God was capable of, how many times and in how many ways God had intervened in the life of the Jewish people. How now for centuries, the Jewish people waited in silence, with there not having been any prophetic words uttered to them. But there was still that hope that God was going to come to save His people from the serious mess that they had made in their sinfulness in their disobedience over, well the entire history of humanity. So here is Zechariah’s in the temple at the time when this conversation happens – and yeah, by the way, even more, obvious he’s having that conversation with an angel – but what’s his reaction to this news? He speaks words that convey a lack of belief, a doubt that is almost blasphemous… almost. So what happens, the angel shuts Zechariah’s mouth before he continues down that track of unbelief. Zechariah’s tongue will not be loosened until the birth of John the Baptist.
That strikes me not so much as a punishment to Zechariah as more protecting his wife, the expectant mother Elizabeth. In the intimacy of her body and soul, as she nurtured and loved John in the womb, God didn’t want Zechariah’s doubts and unbelief to undermine her joyful anticipation, how her heart had already swelled at what was happening in her life, for the people of Israel who had long awaited the coming of the Messiah, for the entire world and history of humanity desperately in need of a Savior. How the longing in Elizabeth’s heart over the years for a child – would be met and surpassed by John the Baptists coming who would become such an important figure answering those greater longings those universal longings. Zechariah’s silence protects her from his sowing his doubts and fears and also causes him to stop talking and listen, and remember what God is capable of.
This all sets the scene for St. Joseph.
St. Joseph on the other hand, at the beginning of the narrative of Jesus’ birth, the scriptures paint a scene that is profound, where Joseph says so much without a word being recorded. We know unlike Zechariah – he’s not an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures – but he’s a convicted, faithful Jewish man who knew those scriptures most importantly in his heart. Unlike Zecharaiah who’s a recognized authority figure commanding respect and authority among his fellow Jews, Joseph’s a simple man. A tradesman. A good Jewish man – trying to make ends meet. But probably not recognized beyond his family, his village, the people he had done work for. Joseph probably didn’t even think about his lowliness in comparison to someone like Zechariah – those comparisons where jealousy and envy would have the ability to enter in and distract and disturb and tempt. All because he has found the love of his life in of all women, the Blessed Virgin Mary… Most men when they fall in love believe that their wives-to-be are perfect and in Joseph’s case, he was right. He probably didn’t feel worthy to find such perfection and must have battled internally with himself with thoughts that this was too good to be true that she and he are going share a life together, create a family.
This is probably why when he first hears the news from Mary, that she has conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit – his silence in scripture is incredibly moving. Unlike Zechariah, we don’t hear anything dismissive or disbelieving. In fact, the more I’ve prayed with Joseph over the years, the more I believe he wasn’t filled with doubt in Mary or God. If there were any doubts it was more with himself. “I knew she was too good to be with someone like me… this was too good to be true…” Mary was that special. The lack of Joseph’s words at this moment allows us to imagine the wrestling that went on his heart of hearts… sadness of what he had imagined for himself evaporating… probably anger at himself for feeling such sadness over his personal plans not coming to fruition, maybe down on himself that those feelings could be selfish. Because Joseph loves Mary, Mary loves Joseph and they both love God. Which ultimately is the thing that matters the most.
So trying to put ourselves into that scene we can imagine the speechlessness at such a sacred moment. One writer beautifully described it that we can imagine this “silence as closer to the experience of a man in a foreign land who does not speak the language. He has many things to offer, but no way to put them into words that can be understood.” Their hearts had to have been filled with so many emotions.
But beyond whatever personal struggles, personal feelings, Joseph keeps coming back to his faith in God. In simplicity and humility this man’s heart is filled with the awesomeness of what God is capable of, and wanting to stay in awe of that awesomeness… doing nothing to distract or undermine it. That’s why when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, it’s even more dramatic. Unlike Zechariah or the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joseph didn’t have the benefit of having a conversation with an angel, for him, it’s in a dream. And the fact that St. Matthew in his gospel account of this describes Joseph waking the next morning and simply doing what the angel “commanded” we hear more about his faith, his trust in God than if he had ever said a word. It’s one thing to say we believe, that we trust. You can be a priest (Jewish or Catholic for that matter) know many sacred things and be surrounded by many sacred settings. But ultimately the best sermons are the ones that demonstrate abandoning oneself to God’s plan. Or as Joseph’s foster son would put it, “thy will be done…” In St. Joseph we see a man living those words before Jesus ever spoke them and shared the intimate prayer, the “Our Father.”
Over the years, the more I’ve prayed with this scene, I imagine Joseph didn’t even share his plan to “divorce Mary quietly” with her until much later – almost like confessing to his beloved his embarrassment that the thought had even crossed his mind, and more blown away by what he was included into, how he was invited to participate, even more, to be essential to the story of God saving His people. Being a protector, completely self-emptying and selfless, chaste lover to Mary. Sharing the somewhat unimaginable role of parenting God-incarnate.
That’s just one episode in the brief mentions and seeming silence of St. Joseph that we’re meant to reflect on. Recognizing that we see in St. Joseph how God operates in unconventional but in accessible ways. Not to diminish the contributions of the brilliant, the eloquent, the bold and dramatic Saints – but not to limit the potential for God to do some remarkable things in those who are maybe not gifted in those ways. Recognizing God can, and does, work in and through the simple, faithful, and humble – as we find in the witness of the foster-father of Jesus, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary – St. Joseph.
As we travel together in these next 9 nights of prayer, St. Joseph wants us to share in the silence of our hearts what it is that is troubling, weighing us down, disturbing us. The intentions that keep us up at night, or re-emerge throughout the day. And in that silence to let him in his silent witness speak to us. Of the goodness of God. Of the faithfulness of God. Inviting us to trust in that first and foremost. St. Joseph reminds us that we don’t have to do great things to impress God. We already have His attention. And like Joseph, when we in our humility, simply come to him and are open to Him, God can use us as we are and accomplish with and through us more than we can ever imagine.
Saint Joseph, pray for us.
What a beautiful tribute to St Joseph! I learned a new way of understanding him, especially his love for Mary. Thanks!
Thanks Sue – St. Joseph has been a true friend for so long, happy to share my love and devotion to him and how he’s a powerful model and intercessor